|Our Scripture passage for this Sunday comes from the Gospel of Matthew 3:1–12. In this passage we are introduced to the person of John the Baptist and his ministry of preparing the way for Jesus. Advent is a time of preparation, and the image of John the Baptist offers some insightful challenges for us as disciples who strive for preparedness of faith in our lives.|
The first part of John’s preaching calls on the crowds to repent. The word “repent” comes from the Greek word metanoia and literally means to “re-think” or “change one’s mind”. John preaches this message because our actions stem from our thoughts. If we want to change our lives, we have to change our thinking first. The call to repent is the invitation to see things from God’s perspective and to take on the “mind of Christ” (as St. Paul describes it in 1 Cor 2:16). When we see the situations of our lives from God’s point of view, we will correctly prioritize our values and respond in a Christ-like way to the situations we face. Being a disciple is not a matter of following rules and regulations or just external observances. Rather, it is a matter of living in deep communion with God and expressing that communion in the way we act. Repentance is a good thing. There is both an inherent relationship and a difference between the moments of conversion and repentance in a person’s life. Conversion means to “turn towards” the Lord and occurs in moments when a person’s life is re-directed toward God. These moments can be born from a realization of God’s presence, God’s Love, and God’s forgiveness. Conversion occurs when we willingly refocus our lives on God. However, conversion must be lived out in practical actions so that our lives are, indeed, conformed to Christ Jesus and the Gospel. As we undertake each change, each step, we come closer to being conformed to the Lord. Repentance is the process of progressing in closeness to God through a life evermore conformed to the Gospel. The teachings of Jesus and our Lord’s way of life are meant to inspire us so that we will follow wherever He leads us. Most people think of the term repentance in a penitential sense and so believe it to involve actions of self-denial, self-mortification, amendment of life, and so forth. While the process of repentance may involve these things, as well as other ascetic practices, it is a much more positive process. Its ultimate goal is to bring us to deeper communion with the Lord both in how we think and in what we do.
How does this teaching on repentance differ from your previous understanding of the term?
What values and priorities bring you closer to God, and what values and priorities lead you away from God in daily circumstances?
What is a situation you are facing now that you would like to see from God’s perspective so as to respond with the mind of Christ?
Repentance is a life-long process for every disciple. What have been some of the significant experiences that have helped you to repent?
What have been some of the significant experiences that have helped you to redirect your life to God (conversion)?
The physical description of John the Baptist is interesting as we are told he wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt. This description correlates to that of the Prophet Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8 and suggests that John was clearly presenting himself as the new Elijah. That presentation was an important announcement because in Malachi 3:1, 4–5 we are told that Elijah would return to prepare for the Messiah. We are also told that John ate locusts and wild honey, which signifies much more than simply an odd diet. It is actually a statement that John was preserving himself in ritual purity even in the desert and was trusting in divine providence for his daily life. This description of John the Baptist may seem strange to us, but when we understand the statement he was making by his appearance and lifestyle then we better understand the message he was sending. As a disciple, John understood his responsibility to draw others to Christ with missionary outreach. John knew that attracting others to Jesus meant that he had to get their attention in a way that raised their curiosity. It was John’s lifestyle and not just his words that attracted people to him and raised their awareness of the coming Messiah. Sometimes we, as disciples, don’t like to stand out from the crowd in order to avoid being different from the rest. It is important to remember that our missionary outreach sometimes requires that we find ways to raise the curiosity of others. For John, this action involved his dress and diet. Regardless of the means, the challenge is the same. There should be something different about the way disciples live and that difference should intrigue and attract others to learn more about us. It is that curiosity that becomes the open door through which we can share with others the faith that guides and sustains our lives. As Saint Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:15, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” John attracted a crowd and John did not hesitate to inform that crowd of the reason for his hope — The Lord Jesus Christ.
What have you seen someone do that raised the curiosity of others and became an opportunity to share authentically, sincerely, and inspiringly the gift of faith?
What do you do as a distinctive and overt expression of your discipleship so that others can be drawn to Jesus through you?
What happens when disciples are just like everyone else in the crowd?
Next, John warns the Pharisees and Sadducees to “Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance.” That’s because these two groups were coming to be baptized for the sake of accumulating one more religious experience. John does not prevent them from being baptized but rather warns them that baptism must be lived out. If they fail to live out their action of repentance (baptism) then they cannot presume that their ritual action of faith alone will preserve them from God’s wrath. There is an important analogy that is worth remembering in this regard: baptism is to the Christian life what a wedding is to a marriage. Once the ritual is celebrated, then comes the daily challenge of living it out. The Pharisees and Sadducees knew the fruit God expected of them since the Prophets often spoke about this theme (Hos 9:16, Is 27:6, Jer 12:2, 17, 8, and Ez 17:8–9, 23). As disciples, we can fall into the temptation to accumulate religious experiences as well, but if those experiences do not bear good fruit in the way we live then we have missed the point like the Pharisees and Sadducees. This failure to connect our religious actions and our daily lives occurs when we see someone in need and say, “I’ll pray for you” but do nothing beyond that to help them. It happens when we go to church on Sunday because it’s that time of the week but do not let our worship guide us throughout the week. It happens when we confess our sins but do not have a sincere desire for conversion. All the religious actions and good intentions we can muster really don’t mean much if they don’t lead to a practical change in the way we live. That’s what makes the difference between religion as a means of entertainment and religion as a life-changing encounter with God.
What are the “Good fruits” the Lord expects us to produce every time we receive Communion?
What are the “Good fruits” the Lord expects from us when we pray the Lord’s Prayer?
What are the “Good fruits” the Lord expects from you as a result of your study of the Sunday Gospel?
What are the “Good fruits” the Lord expects from you through the blessings of your marriage and family?
How are we tempted today to reduce our religious practice to entertainment rather than life-changing encounter?
John then preaches that people should not rely on external relationships of faith. In particular, he says to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’” John knew that many people of his time thought they were automatically privileged in the eyes of God because of their relationship to Abraham. This message is an enduring caution to disciples of all time and reminds us we should not presume God’s mercy or favor based upon a mere association with others or simply because of our religious affiliation. Rather, each person must make a personal and radical commitment to the person of Jesus in a life-changing relationship. No one else can do this for us. The example of others may lead us to this commitment and encourage us in it, but another’s example is never a substitute for it. The good lives of our parents, relatives, friends, or fellow parishioners are not our lives. God wants us to respond to Him and not to excuse ourselves because of our association with others who have responded. If the Pharisees and Sadducees want to be children of Abraham then they have to imitate Abraham’s fidelity and sacrificial love for God in their own lives. True children act like their father. Saint Paul reflects extensively on the example of Abraham in Galatians 3 and Romans 4 so that the early Christians of those communities will know how to imitate Abraham’s faith in their own lives.
What are ways in which people can rely on superficial relationships of faith today?
When have you been tempted to think you automatically have a privileged relationship with God because of some external factor in your life (being Catholic or the family you belong to, as examples)?
How can external identifications of faith become helpful by informing and guiding our discipleship?
In Baptism we become the adopted sons and daughters of God. How would your day change if you were to live out that identity in a radical way?
Lastly, John turns the attention of the crowds away from him and towards the coming of Jesus. While many people were coming to him, he did not want them to be confused about who was really the Messiah. Rather, John clearly pointed out how much greater is Jesus. By doing so John is showing incredible humility in overcoming the temptation to pride and leading people to God rather than focusing people’s attention and affection on himself. Just imagine how easy it would have been for John to make himself the focus of the people’s admiration. We all like to be in the limelight in some way and to be respected and honored by those closest to us. John used his popularity and appeal to lead others to Jesus and so should we in order to preserve our inner freedom. In the XIV century the English Augustinian mystic Walter Hilton pointed out that if we want to know how much pride is inside of us, we need to observe wisely if flattery and praise are pleasing to us and turn into vain gladness and self-satisfaction. Also, we need to pay attention when others despise us with no reason and if we feel resentment against them with resistance against suffering and shame, then we need to look for repentance.
What are the negative effects that occur when religious leaders focus people’s attention on themselves rather than on Jesus? For whom are you the focus of attention?
What talents or personality traits draw people to you and how could you use those talents and traits to lead people to Jesus?
How can you channel others’ attention and respect for you towards the Lord and so lead them to Him?
John’s most successful work was his preaching and baptism; he used both of those as the vehicles for his message of Jesus. What is your most successful work and how can it become the vehicle for you to communicate the message of Jesus?
Sometimes we actually like it when other people see us as their savior. How do you think pride gets in the way of true discipleship and the message of the Gospel?
Walter Hilton, The Scale of Perfection,
Book 1, 63. New York: Paulist Press. 1991, p. 134.