Lectio Divina

3rd Sunday of Advent (A)

Jesus’ witness concerning John the Baptist
Matthew 11:2-11

1. Let us invoke the Holy Spirit

Spirit of God,
who at the beginning of creation
hovered over the abyss of the universe
and transformed the great yawn of things
into a smile of beauty,
come down again on earth
and grant it the thrill of its beginnings.
This world that is growing old,
touch it with the wing of your glory,
Restore to us the primordial joy.
Pour yourself without measure on all our afflictions.
Hover once more over our old world in danger.
And, finally, the desert will once more be a garden
and in the garden the tree of justice will flower
and the fruit of justice will be peace.
Spirit of God, who by the banks of the Jordan
descended in your fullness on Jesus’ head
and proclaimed him Messiah,
overshadow this portion of the mystical Body
gathered before you.
Adorn it with a robe of grace.
Consecrate it with unction
and invite it to bring the good news to the poor,
to bandage the wounds of broken hearts,
to proclaim freedom to slaves,
release to prisoners
and announce the year of mercy of the Lord.
Free us from the fear of not coping.
May our eyes radiate superhuman transparency.
May our hearts emit courage blended with tenderness.
May our hands pour out the blessing of the Father
on all that we touch.
Grant that our bodies may be resplendent with joy.
Clothe us with nuptial robes.
And gird us with girdles of light.
Because, for us and for all, the Bridegroom will not delay in coming.
T. Bello

2. The Gospel text

Matthew 11: 2-112 Now John had heard in prison what Christ was doing and he sent his disciples to ask him, 3 'Are you the one who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?' 4 Jesus answered, 'Go back and tell John what you hear and see; 5 the blind see again, and the lame walk, those suffering from virulent skin-diseases are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the good news is proclaimed to the poor; 6 and blessed is anyone who does not find me a cause of falling.' 7 As the men were leaving, Jesus began to talk to the people about John, 'What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swaying in the breeze? No? 8 Then what did you go out to see? A man wearing fine clothes? Look, those who wear fine clothes are to be found in palaces. 9 Then what did you go out for? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and much more than a prophet: 10 he is the one of whom scripture says: Look, I am going to send my messenger in front of you to prepare your way before you. 11 'In truth I tell you, of all the children born to women, there has never been anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.

3. Let us pause and read again the Gospel text

- Let us whisper quietly the words of the Gospel and let them slowly pass from our tongue to our mind and from our mind to our heart.
Let us quietly savour some of these words…
- We are gathered around Jesus and we are listening to what the disciples are asking of him concerning John: this is a serious question from those who have the power to change history.
- Jesus’ answer takes on a staid tone, but it wounds our heart as with a spear: it is clear that the awaited Messiah is Himself!
- Let the questions, doubts, desires and hopes run freely around the Word of Jesus.  Let them confront and engage with it.
Gradually an answer will come, even though it may be partial: not in the arguments, but when looking squarely at “He who is to come” and who is speaking to you now. Do not weary of repeating his Word in a soft voice and of keeping it in your heart, above and within all the doubts and problems of your day.

4. Let us take a closer look at Matthew’s text

= Our passage comes at the beginning of a new section of the Gospel (11: 2–12, 50). This is a series of tales concerning Jesus’ activity after his discourse on the apostolate. There are not many miracles, but the Evangelist stresses the polemic between Jesus and his adversaries in growing intensity for the whole of the rest of the Gospel.
In all probability, the text reflects the early theological debates between the Christians and the disciples of John concerning the nature of Jesus’ mission.

= John in his prison…: It is a long time since Matthew has made reference to the Baptiser (the last mention is in 4: 12) and now he tells us he is in prison and it is only later that he will tell us the circumstances of his imprisonment (14: 3-12).
* John’s prison, as it was for all, is a place apart, a kind of “world apart” which makes him almost a stranger to normal life and twists the perception of news received from outside. Thus, the question of the Baptiser is not surprising even though he was the first to recognise Jesus as “more powerful” (3: 11) and as the eschatological judge whose “winnowing-fan is in his hand”  (3: 12), bowing before Him humbly and in fear (cfr 3: 11).

= [When he] had heard what Christ was doing…: the expression “Christ was doing”, used here to recall what Jesus was doing, anticipates the answer he will give to John’s question.
* John the Baptist, while in prison, hears news of Jesus: we too every day, while we are in our “prisons” of solitude and distance from God or of suffering, hear “something” that comes from various sources and we feel troubled.
It is often difficult to distinguish between the good news of the Gospel and so many other matters that take place in our daily lives!
And yet, what Jesus does are the things that “the Christ does”, even if we are not always aware of this, just as in the case of John.

= Are you the one who is to come, or have we got to wait for someone else? When John was baptising whole crowds in the Jordan, he had described a strong Messiah who would punish severely the sins of all: “The one who follows me is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to carry his sandals; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fan is in his hand, he will clear his threshing-floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out” (Mt 3: 11-12). In that severity that cracked like a whip in view of conversion and, thus, of salvation, John had read the seal of the mercy of YHWH. Suffering in prison, made fragile by a sense of failure and powerlessness, victim of the injustice and arrogance against which he had fought all his life, it seemed to John that evil was winning and he is upset. Immersed irreversibly in that fog, he is no longer capable of seeing clearly the power of God in action in the works of Jesus.
* It is lawful to speculate: Jesus was revealing himself gradually as the Messiah, but he did so by breaking the canons of the Jewish ideal and the usual interpretations of Sacred Scripture: he was not “doing justice”, he was not separating the good from the bad like the sieve separates the good wheat from the chaff; he preached conversion energetically but pardoned sinners; he showed himself to be “meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11, 29), open and available to all, a stranger to all vulgar ways of contesting the system. It is, therefore, possible to think that John was in crisis because Jesus did not correspond to the Messiah whom he expected and whom he had constantly preached; so, he sends a delegation to Jesus to ask him some questions and for them to report to him a word that might enlighten this mystery of contradictions: “Who are you, Jesus? What do you say of yourself? How can we believe in you when before arrogance and injustice you show yourself as a patient, merciful and non violent Messiah?”
Who of us has not tried to form a more precise idea of the One in whom we believe and his ways of acting, when life has made us meet so many contradictions and injustices, even in the Church? Who of us has not struggled to see and interpret correctly the signs of the active presence of the Lord in our own history? It is difficult to welcome a God who is “different” from our designs and so we must not accuse the Baptist, because we too are subject to the temptation of wanting God to have our feelings and tendencies and who might even be a little vindictive in carrying out “justice”. Often we would like to have a God made in our image and likeness, but “my thoughts are not your thoughts, your ways are not my ways…” (Is 55: 8).

= Jesus answered, Go back and tell John what you hear and see: Jesus does not answer quickly and directly, but shows clearly the facts that result from his actions that are changing history and realising the old prophecy concerning the Messiah. Thus, he does not give an answer “for immediate use”, but the disciples must go back to John and refer to him what they themselves have heard and seen, because the healings, resurrections and liberations are unequivocal signs of the messianic nature of Jesus of Nazareth.
Every day we must learn to proclaim the good news beginning from what we feel and see. Fraternal witness is indispensable to communicate the Gospel.
* Christ submits humbly to the questioning and answers showing the disciples of John a true and personal method of understanding and of proclaiming: "Go back and tell John what you hear and see". The fourth Evangelist recalls the same method in his first letter: “Something which has existed since the beginning that we have heard, and we have seen with our own eyes; that we have watched and touched with our hands: the Word, who is life – this is our subject. That life was made invisible: we saw it and we are giving our testimony, telling you of the eternal life which was with the Father and has been made visible to us. What we have seen and heard we are telling you so that you too may be in union with us” (1Jn 1: 1-3). This was the missionary method used by the early Church: the method learnt from the incarnation of the Word.
A true and efficient proclamation must pass through a simple and modest communication of personal experience: words without fanfare of a life woven by faith.

= The blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor: In these words, a collection of various quotations from Isaiah (28: 18-19; 35: 5-6; 42: 18; 61: 1), we find the core of Jesus’ answer and of our passage. The Lord presents his own works not as judgement and power, but as divine blessing for those of the People in need.
It is significant that the prophetic passages quoted make no reference to leprosy and death that the Evangelist puts into Jesus’ mouth. This emphasises the newness that Jesus brings to his manner of fulfilling the prophecies concerning the Messiah awaited by Israel
The works of Jesus are great, but he is one of the “little ones” who are his chosen ones, he is one of “the poor of JHWH” who already sees the cross at the end of his journey as man. This is unbearable for anyone expecting a triumphant Messiah. Blessed are they who hear and see with a heart full of faith.
* Indirectly Jesus invited John himself to hear and see what he teaches and does. Thus the last of the prophets might recall and now recognise that what Jesus says and does corresponds to the great messianic prophecies so richly contained in the Old Testament.
This is the mechanism of the “religious memory” without which faith will never be enkindled and, especially, may never survive the blows of scandal that life brings with it: the works of God in the past are the signs of his fidelity to the promises and the pledge of his future works.
Committing ourselves to recall every day the “great things” that God worked for us and in us (cfr Lk 1: 49) does not mean falling into sterile reiteration, but gradually bringing the seed of the active grace of God to the very depths of our being, so that it may grow and bear fruit. The Eucharist too is a memorial: it is “the memorial of the Pasch of the Lord”, a living and actual memorial of the salvation offered to each one of us.

= Happy is the man who does not lose faith [is not scandalised]in me: The word “scandal” comes from the Greek: the “stumbling stone” prepared to strike a person by surprise. Notwithstanding the meaning that we usually attribute to this word, in the Bible “scandal” may be either negative or positive.
Jesus is one who “scandalises” his fellow citizens by his poor origins not well suited to a glorious Messiah; he scandalises the Pharisees with his cutting words, he scandalises the disciples of John with his way of doing things not according to foreseen plans and he scandalises his own disciples with his infamous death.
Jesus, however, does not praise those who scandalise the little ones or those who are an occasion of scandal (cfr Mt 5: 29) to the faith or morals thus leading others into wrong ways.
The kind of scandal we need is the one that comes from living the Gospel in a radical manner that shakes us from our habits of life and from our mind-set.
We too are called to “scandalise” the world with the scandal of the Gospel showing by our lives that we must not submit to uses and customs that are at variance with the Christian faith, by refusing compromises that could provoke injustices, by looking after the poor and the least.

= What did you go out into the wilderness to see?: Notwithstanding the weakness shown by the questions put by John, Jesus describes his precursor with enthusiasm as a prophet who by his burning words unites the living and incontestable signs of his privileged connection with God in whose name he speaks to the People. Rather, with this pressing series of six rhetorical questions and three positive statements, Jesus says that John is more than a prophet: he is the one of whom the ancient Scriptures of the fathers speak, the messenger who prepares the way of the Lord (Mt 3: 3) as the old prophets had said (Ml 3:1; Es 23: 20). Nevertheless, the Lord quickly explains the reasons for his affirmation: these may even be too evident to his listeners.

= Of all the children born of women, a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen: John is not only an eminent prophet and precursor of the Messiah (because it is now clear that Jesus considers himself as such), but he is also great as a man, greater than his contemporaries and those of past ages. This is an entirely personal kind of praise that Jesus addresses to Herod’s prisoner and not merely a hyperbole. With these words, Jesus anticipates the comparison between John the Baptist and Elijah, which he will make explicit in verse 14: “he, if you will believe me, is the Elijah who was to return”.
* The expression “of all the children born of women” has a typically Semitic flavour, but it also alludes to the mystery of Jesus’ origin: he too is “born of woman”, but only in what concerns the flesh, because his human-divine genesis goes well beyond his simple humanity.
Our birth as “children of God” in faith is also wrapped in mystery: “who were born not out of human stock or urge of the flesh or will of man but of God himself” (Jn 1: 13). We are “born of woman” but we are not meant for this earth, rather for the Kingdom of heaven where we shall be judged according to our faith and the works of faith, fruits of the welcome we give to our baptismal grace.

= Yet the least …: this part of the sentence (perhaps an early gloss) seems to put a limit on the enthusiastic presentation of the Baptist. Although he is great among men, yet John is small in the Kingdom, because there everything is measured according to criteria quite different from those on earth: the measure of the new times that are coming and have begun with the human coming of the Son of God. Those who belong to this completely new generation are greater than any of those who lived in preceding times, even than John the Baptist.
* The contrast between “great” and “small” is created precisely to make it clear to all believers that to be great one has to become ever smaller. In his human “greatness”, John is presented by Jesus as the least in the Kingdom and thus even for John it is necessary for him to “become small” in the hands of God. It is the same requirement every day for each of us who are tempted to be like the “great” and “powerful”, at least in our desire!

5. Let us pray the Word and thank the Lord

God of our joy, giver of every salvation (Psalm 146)

Yahweh keeps faith for ever,
gives justice to the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry;
Yahweh sets prisoners free.

Yahweh gives sight to the blind,
lifts up those who are bowed down.

Yahweh protects the stranger,
he sustains the orphan and the widow.
Yahweh loves the upright,
but he frustrates the wicked.

Yahweh reigns for ever,
your God, Zion, from age to age.

6. From the Word to contemplation

Lord Jesus
who “are about to come”,
do not delay any more
and listen to the cry of the poor
who look to you for
salvation, justice and joy.
Grant us clear eyes and a pure heart
so that we may be able to discern
your active and fruitful presence
also in the events
of our “today”
that looks so grey
and empty of rays of hope!
Come, Lord Jesus!

"The Spirit and the bride say: 'Come!'.
And those who listen repeat: 'Come!'.
Let those who thirst, come;
those who wish may draw the water of life freely.
He who bears witness to these things says:
'Yes, I shall come soon!'.
Come, Lord Jesus.”
(Ap 22: 17.20)


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Last revised: 6 December 2004