Last week we heard John the Baptist preaching out in the wilderness about repentance and unquenchable fires. Today we hear that he's in jail and sending his disciples to Jesus asking if he's the Messiah or if they should wait for someone else. This might seem nonsensical to us today what with 2000 years of Christian tradition and history behind us. After all, Luke tells us they were cousins; John leapt for joy in his mother's womb when Mary made her visit to Elizabeth. And in this very gospel it is recorded that John baptized Jesus, witnessed the heavens opening, and God declaring Jesus the beloved Son. How could John NOT know that Jesus was the expected one?
Well, as a former professor used to say, “It's more complicated than that.”
At this particular time in history, as with other times, there seemed to be a concern as to whether or not it was the end of days. Various communities sprung up in Israel that were steeped in last days theology. It has been speculated that John was a member of one of these groups – specifically the Essenes. I'm not getting into that debate other than to say this: Those communities were focused on the end days and the imminent coming of the Messiah. If John were a member, then it makes perfect sense that he wants to verify who Jesus is.
One of the other issues with the Church at the time the gospels were written was what's been called “the problem of John.” John was seen as a great prophet. John baptized Jesus. John had many followers/disciples who saw him as sent by God to proclaim a message of repentance. John was a big deal. But this gospel passage isn't about John.
One of the reasons for inserting this story into the gospel was to put an end to that controversy. John prepared people for the coming of Jesus and was then written out of the story. Add to that Jesus' proclamation that, no matter how great John was, even the least in the kingdom of heaven would be greater than him. And ultimately this particular passage isn't about John or his question, it's about Jesus' response.
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” is the question.
“Go and tell what you hear and see,” is the response.
I'm reading a book entitled The Prodigal God, by Timothy Keller. He's focused on the parable of the two sons found in Luke, but he said something applicable to all of Scripture. He basically says, “The Bible is not the ABC's of our faith, but it is the A to Z of our faith.” What he's getting at is that the Bible is not a rules book but is, instead, a complete way of life.
I think Jesus, through Matthew, makes this same point when he says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see.”
Too often, it seems, we look for a savior or a messiah who fits a particular criteria. We see someone who proclaims himself to be anti-abortion, pro-choice, anti-taxes, pro-business, pro-family values, pro-women, or whatever issue we personally have a stake in, and then (to borrow a phrase from Arlo Guthrie) we pin a medal on his chest and say, “You're our boy.” If we see it fitting in with our particular values, we want to make the proclamation of a savior. But in Matthew, Jesus takes a different approach.
Go and tell John what you hear and see. If we read Scripture holistically, A to Z, rather than prescriptively, ABC, we come to a different place. We don't see Jesus as fulfilling the requirements of ABC and then anointing him as Messiah. Instead, we hear the words of Scripture as an A to Z relationship and we see how Jesus fulfills the overall scriptural theme.
It was good. God gave. God desires. Return to me. Have compassion. Do not opress others. Blind shall see. Lame shall walk. Lepers shall be cleansed. The deaf shall hear. The poor will have good news brought to them.
This is not only an A to Z life change for those people, it is an A to Z life change for us who help make this a reality. As we look to Scripture to inform our lives, how does Scripture reflect the totality of our faith, the A to Z, rather than particular check-points of a faith, the ABC's?
This is what Jesus is telling John through his disciples. What do you hear in the voice of Scripture? What do you hear in the prophets? What do you hear from God?
Those things you hear – restoration, compassion, inclusion, healing, and wholeness – are being fulfilled in what you see from Jesus. Through Jesus people are restored and healed. Through Jesus people receive compassion, dignity, and respect. Through Jesus the outcasts are returned and included. What you see is a fulfillment of what is heard in the holistic totality of Scripture.
The focus of today's gospel isn't John's question. Today's gospel isn't concerned with seeing how Jesus fulfills a messianic checklist that determines whether or not we follow him.
Instead, the focus of today's gospel is to allow us to hear how the long arc of Scripture is fulfilled in the person of Jesus. Jesus shows us how to live faithfully on the arc of Scripture through his healing, restoring, compassion, and dignified inclusion of outcasts.
On this Gaudete Sunday when rejoicing is the overall theme of the day, what do you hear in Scripture? Do you hear what Jesus heard? More importantly, will what you hear allow others to see what Scripture proclaims?