GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
So this is no small matter. Let’s look at St. John in this episode from Matthew 11:2–11. This is the Gospel for this week and we will put it in its context and then connect it with the Old Testament readings and the Psalm. It says this:
Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind? Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, those who wear soft raiment are in kings’ houses. Why then did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.’ Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Okay! There is so much to talk about here. Let’s just try to back up and put it in context. The first thing we want to look at is the context of the question. As it implies here, John the Baptist has been put into prison by Herod. His prophetic ministry is over and he is now in prison awaiting a death sentence. He sends his disciples to Jesus—after hearing about the actions of Jesus (Jesus has begun performing various deeds)—asking the question “are you the one who is to come?” Literally in the Greek, are you he who is to come
? Now that’s a very loaded question, a very mysterious question. On the one hand, most of us when we hear it, we think it simply means, “Are you the Messiah?” And that’s true, that’s part of the question.
But you’ll notice that he doesn’t say, “Are you the Messiah?” he says, “Are you he who is to come?” (Matt 11:3). And as we will see in a second, that is an allusion to Old Testament prophecies of the coming one, the coming of God—as we will see in a minute when we look at Isaiah 35. Notice how Jesus responds here. He is always kind of evasive in his answers. He doesn’t say “you’ve got it, you’re right, I am the Messiah” or something like that. He says go and tell John what you see. And he gives a list of criteria, a list of actions, that should tell John and his disciples who he really is. The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. So that’s his list of accomplishments so to speak, and evidently Jesus thinks that’s enough to give the answer to the question without saying anything explicit. And he adds one little caveat too: a beatitude, “blessed is he doesn’t take any offense at me” (Matt 11:6).
Now in order to see what the those things mean, we have to go back to the Old Testament reading—and I am going to do that in a just second—because, as we’ll see, the very passage that Jesus is alluding to is the first reading for this week, it’s the oracle of Isaiah 35. But before we do that, one quick point about John himself. The last section of this Gospel is Jesus, in a sense, asking the questions about the identity of John. So the passage begins with John asking about the identity of Jesus and now it reverses with Jesus asking about the identity of John. And he basically goes through a list of things and he says, “did you go into the wilderness to see a reed shaken by the wind?” (see Matt 11:7). In other words, someone who could be influenced very easily. Obviously John wasn’t that way, he fought hard, he resisted King Herod and his influence. He also says “did you go to out to see one who lived in luxury?” (see Matt 11:8). Well no, John is a prophet, he is eating locusts and wild honey. “Did you go out to see a prophet?” (Matt 11:9). And that’s when Jesus says, “if that’s the case, let me tell you, John is more than just a prophet. He is the prophesied messenger of the Old Testament.”
Here Jesus alludes to a very important prophecy from the book of Malachi. I mentioned Malachi last week as prophesying that one day Elijah would come before the great and terrible day of the Lord, before the coming of the Lord (see Mal 4:5). And at the end of Malachi it also says that God is going to send his messenger to prepare his way (see Mal 3:1). So here Jesus identifies John as the messenger who would prepare the way for the coming of the Lord himself (see Matt 11:10). Now that’s very interesting because a lot of times Christians assume that he’s just talking about the coming of the Messiah. But if you go look at the book of Malachi, it doesn’t say anything about the coming Messiah, it says something about the coming of the Lord, about the coming of Yahweh, about the God of Israel coming on this great day of judgment. So what Jesus is saying here is that he’s more than a prophet because he’s the one who heralds the coming of the Lord himself.
And that’s why Jesus says, “among those born of women, no one is greater than John the Baptist” (Matt 11:11). Now sometimes Catholics get tripped up by that because they’ll say, “well hold on a second, isn’t Mary the greatest human who ever lived? How do you reconcile that with what Jesus says here?” Well you have to look at it in context because obviously he doesn’t mean that John the Baptist is greater than Mary because the context is old covenant prophecies and the old covenant people. That is why he says “no one is greater than John the Baptist, yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John” (see Matt 11:11). So he is contrasting the old covenant era—of which John is the greatest, the apex, the greatest man ever—and then the era of the new covenant, the new Kingdom, of which John is less than even the least in the kingdom, because it’s going to be a heavenly kingdom. So for a Catholic, just as an aside, you might think about that. Mary is not least in the kingdom of heaven, she’s actually the Queen Mother of the king of heaven. So John is not being put above Mary, but he is being singled out, in context, as the greatest man who ever lived in the Old Testament period, as the greatest of all the prophets because he gets to herald the coming of the Lord himself.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
And then the final thing he does in this passage is interesting. He gives a second example. And this example is not taken from ordinary life or the life of the farms and field. It’s actually taken from the Scriptures. So he’ll often do this as well in his letter. He’ll take one example from daily life and then another example from the Bible. And so the second example he gives here of patience is that of the prophets. So he says:
As an example of suffering and patience, brethren, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. (James 5:10)
Now, why are the prophets an example of patience? Two key reasons. First, the vast majority of them never saw their prophecies come to fulfillment. That’s the first thing. So think about Isaiah, all those prophecies of the suffering servant...or Ezekiel’s prophecies of the new temple...or Jeremiah’s prophecies of the coming Messiah and the ingathering of the twelve tribes of Israel. They all died before any of those things ever came to pass. And actually, not only did they die, but according to ancient Jewish tradition (which James is probably assuming here, because he’s writing to Jewish Christians), they were all martyred. So Jeremiah was, according to tradition, Jeremiah was stoned to death by his own people. And according to tradition, Isaiah the prophet was sawn in half while he was alive by King Manasseh. Alright, so he was cut in half and put to death.
So, if I were Isaiah or I were Jeremiah, and I ended my life that way—executed at the hands of my own people or the hands of my own king—and not seeing any of my prophecies come to fulfillment, I might be tempted to complain. And yet, what does James say? The prophets didn’t complain. They suffered in tranquility as they awaited the hope, as they awaited the fulfillment of prophecies of the Word of the Lord, which they themselves would not see come to pass.
Also, too, when it came to the actual fulfillment, think about this: sometimes those prophecies took centuries, or in the case of for example, Nathan’s prophecy to David, a millennium. A thousand years went by between Nathan telling David a king would come from his own offspring, whose throne will be established forever in the coming of Jesus Christ. So a millennium went by. So what James is doing is he’s just drawing on the fact that if the prophets of the Old Testament could wait their entire lifetime and then even beyond their lifetime—centuries and even a millennium—for the fulfillment of their prophecies to take place, then how much more should we Christians be patient as we wait for the fulfillment of the prophecies of Jesus about His parousia
, about His second coming, and about the final judgment that will take place at His second Advent, His final Advent?
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