Our Scripture passage for this Sunday comes from the Gospel of Matthew 11:2–11. In this passage we read about John the Baptist sending his messengers to ask whether or not Jesus is the Christ, “The One who is to come”. While Jesus esteems John as being the greatest of the Prophets, He doesn’t answer their question directly. Instead, Jesus tells them that they, and John, must make a personal decision of faith about Him. This reading offers several points of reflection for us during this third week of Advent.
Prophets are a very misunderstood group in the Scriptures. Oftentimes people think the prophets were those who foretold the future. Certainly that misunderstanding is exemplified by many of our secular tabloids. However, the role of a prophet like John the Baptist was to be God’s spokesperson in the world. The prophets were people who interpreted the events of their times and called others to return to right relationship with God and neighbor. The prophets helped others to see things from God’s perspective and to respond accordingly. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12 that the gift of prophecy continued to be a ministry in the early Church. The charisms of the Holy Spirit are often intensified when significant movements are initiated. This intensification of charism was seen in the early Church that received the gift of the Holy Spirit in dramatic ways on Pentecost. Similar intensifications of the Spirit have also been manifested historically when religious orders and religious movements were being founded. Charisms can be manifested and recognized on a variety of levels including personal, communal (local parish and religious movements) and institutional. The institutionalization of a charism does not diminish in any way the effective gift of the Spirit to individuals but rather preserves it, incorporates it, and channels it into the formal life and ministry of the Church.
Who are the prophets in the Church today?
How do you tell the difference between an authentic prophet and an inauthentic one?
When have you been a prophetic voice to someone else so as to help them understand the events of their lives from God’s perspective and to respond accordingly?
To whom do you listen when you are seeking to understand the events of our time or your life from God’s perspective?
The prophets were often persecuted because of their message. When have you been put down or rejected for communicating a message of faith?
John prepared as best he could for the coming of Jesus. However, John expected a Messiah who would bring punishment, destruction, and vengeance (cf. uses of “fire”, “axe”, “winnowing fork” in Mt 3:1–12). His preaching was a message of “fire and brimstone”. Jesus, however, came as someone who reconciled, converted, healed, and redeemed. These were actions quite different from those of John’s expectations. This confused expectation helps us understand why John sought clarification of Jesus’ mission and identity. The experience of John teaches us that the best we can do as disciples is to be ready to welcome the Lord in the way He wishes to reveal Himself. Even John’s expectations were not completely accurate. John thought the Messiah should punish the wicked and vindicate the righteous, yet John remained unjustly imprisoned by Herod. Perhaps John’s personal situation of suffering made it difficult for him to see how God’s mercy could act in other people’s lives (healing of the blind, lame, and so forth) while not in his own life. Part of our Advent preparation as disciples is to examine the ways in which we have allowed our own expectations of God to blind us to the Lord’s action in our world. It takes humility to let God be God! That humility also requires that we study God’s works in salvation history so that we can better recognize how surprising and unconventional is the Lord’s action.
How have you seen God acting in unexpected ways?
What are the dangers of insisting that God act according to our expectations?
When do you find yourself frustrated in faith because God doesn’t act the way you think He should?
When has your personal suffering made it difficult for you to rejoice in other people’s blessings?
How have you seen suffering become an obstacle to faith?
What is a way in which you can learn more about God’s actions in salvation history so as to better recognize the Lord’s works in the world today?
When do you find it difficult to let God be God?
When the disciples of John come to Jesus they seek clarification as to whether or not Jesus is the Messiah (“the One who is to come”). Jesus did not answer that question for them. Instead, He pointed to the works He had done and asked them to interpret for themselves what those signs mean. Jesus did heal the blind in Matthew 8:27–30, made the lame walk in Matthew 8:5–13 and Matthew 9:1–7, healed lepers in Matthew 8:1–4, made the deaf hear in Matthew 8:32–34, raised the dead in Matthew 9:18–26, and preached good news to the poor in Matthew 5:3. Some passages of the Old Testament (especially Is 26:19, 35:5–6 and 61:1) identify these works as things that God will do. The Lord doesn’t answer a lot of our questions either. Sometimes we have to look around us and interpret the good works taking place as confirming signs of God’s presence. To a person of faith, the witness of God’s love and providence is abundantly clear. To a person who lacks faith, life is nothing but chance and coincidence. Either way, Jesus doesn’t make a decision of faith for us. At best, He points our attention in the right way and asks us to make our own decision of faith for Him. When we do so, our eyes are opened to see the wonder of God’s presence in ways we could never have previously imagined. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins commented on this when he said, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”  It should be noted that Jesus does not tell John’s disciples to watch Him only in glorious moments when He preaches to the crowds or when He walks on water or when He feeds the five thousand with a few loaves and fish. Rather, He tells them that they will come to know Him best in ministry to the suffering and downtrodden. There are certain settings in which we can come to experience God’s presence in a more immediate and intense way than others. These settings are called “privileged places of encounter”. Jesus identified Himself with the poor and the suffering when He said, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do unto me” (Mt 25:40). When we are close to those who suffer, we will be close to the Lord and we will see the presence of God more clearly. Disciples who have trouble recognizing the Lord present in those who suffer will have even greater difficulty recognizing God present in Jesus on the cross of Calvary.
When have you made a decision of faith for God in your life?
What prompted it and how do you identify with John the Baptist’s disciples who seek clarification?
What are the signs of the times today that reveal to us the reality and presence of God?
Jesus continues His works through the gift of the Holy Spirit in the Church. How are people today drawn to Jesus through these ministries?
Which of the works of Jesus has touched your life in a personal way so as to awaken the gift of faith in you?
When has your faith grown because you experienced the Lord’s presence while serving Him in a privileged place of encounter?
The final part of Jesus’ discourse is a challenge to the crowds when He asks them, “What did you go out to see?” He uses the example of a reed shaken by the wind and someone clothed in soft garments. The reed shaken by the wind is probably a reference to someone who changes their opinions based on political convenience. The person dressed in soft clothes is probably an image of comfort, prestige, and high society. Herod actually did fit both of these images and even used a reed on coins minted during his reign when he founded the city of Tiberius in AD 19. Jesus challenged the crowds to be clear about why they went to the desert and to respond accordingly to the one they heard speak. If they went to hear the latest political or religious opinion, then that’s a matter of interest, debate, and discussion; but if they went to hear a prophet, they should be heeding every word that John preached as coming from the mouth of God. If they went to see the latest and most beautiful fashion, then that’s a matter of competitive consumerism, culture, or artistic interest; but if they went to hear a prophet, they should be prepared to embrace the difficult sacrifices needed so as to change their lives and return to right relationship with God and others. Jesus issues the same challenge to us every time we encounter the word of God in prayer, Scripture study, and other sources of divine revelation. We cannot remain neutral in the face of a religious encounter; we will either respond to God with acceptance or reject the Lord with indifference. This challenge is particularly relevant for us during this Advent time when we are encouraged to seek a deeper encounter with the Lord. We are cautioned to not only seek that encounter but to also respond appropriately to it.
Why do you come to Mass and receive Communion?
What do you look for in the homily or the reading of the Scriptures?
What do you do when you are presented with an opportunity to grow in faith through a particular ministry?
What are some of the religious opportunities (like the preaching of John the Baptist) that have changed your life?
What are some of the religious opportunities you wish you had participated in but didn’t?
In what ways can we try to diminish the power of God’s Word and so exempt ourselves from needing to be changed by it?
Gerard M. Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur” in Poems and Prose,
London: Penguins Classics, 1985.