Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Matthew 11:2-11 – NRSV).
There is a parallel text in Luke 7.18–35.
Both Matthew and Luke are dependent upon Q rather than Mark for this text.
There are three parts here concerning John and Jesus. The first is Matthew 11:2-6 (paralleled in Luke 7:18-23) concerning John’s question to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come?”. The second is Matthew 11:7-11 (paralleled in Luke 7:24-28) concerning Jesus remarks about John. The third is Matthew 11:16-19 (paralleled in Luke 7:31-35) is a parable about the negative responses to both John and Jesus. This last part is not included in our Gospel today.
“Since the units follow the same order in both Matthew and Luke, we may assume that this was also their order in Q. Although the three units all deal with the relationship of Jesus to John, in fact they are quite different in content and style, leaving the impression that three originally unconnected units were joined in Q on the basis of their dealing with the same general topic” (Daniel J Harrington, SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 158).
John heard in prison: The works of Josephus also record the imprisonment of John – see Antiquities 18:116–119. Matthew 4:12 records the death of John.
the Messiah: The Greek word is christou. One commentator writes of the use of the word christos: “The word entered English from Latin Christus, which transliterates Gk christos. Outside the LXX, NT, and early Jewish and Christian writings, christos is an adjective meaning ‘rubbed on’ or ‘used as an ointment or salve’. It modifies the word indicating the substance so applied, as in the expression to elaion to christon ‘the anointing oil’ (Lev 21:10, 12 [LXX]).
“Elsewhere in the LXX, the term is only used in connection with persons in the meaning ‘anointed’, translating Heb māšı̂aḥ. This is also the case in early Jewish writings. In the books of the NT, christos is used generally of the coming ‘anointed one’ (‘Messiah’) of Jewish expectation or specifically of Jesus, believed to be this ‘Messiah’. In the Greek text of John 1:41—’We have found the Messiah (which means Christ)’—the Greek messias and christos are used (cf. John 4:25).
“The word christos occurs about 350 times in the NT (exact figures are difficult because of the many variants in the manuscript tradition, particularly in the case of Jesus). It is often found in the combinations ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘Christ Jesus’, and sometimes functions as a second name. In a considerable number of cases it cannot be demonstrated that christos carries the meaning ‘Messiah’ or has messianic overtones” (M de Jonge, “Christ”, D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 1), New York: Doubleday, 1992, 914).
At this time there were expectations of the Messiah and John is inquiring if Jesus is in fact the one they have waited for. Doubts and confusion abounded because there was a strong expectation that the Messiah would be a military leader: “The Davidic Messiah of Psalms of Solomon 17 will reign over Israel (17:21), purge Jerusalem from its Gentile conquerors (17:22–25), gather a holy people and judge the tribes (17:26–27), and restore the tribal boundaries (17:28–29). This righteous king will avoid the errors and sins committed by Israel’s kings in the past, for he will rely on the God who made him powerful in the holy spirit (17:37). The day when the Messiah will reign is ‘the day of mercy in blessing’ (18:5). This Messiah is the ideal Jewish king of the future who is primarily a military and political leader.
“It is possible that Jesus’ list of the ‘works of the Christ’ deliberately contrasts with the kind of messianic expectations expressed in circles such as those that produced Psalms of Solomon. Then Jesus would be saying: ‘I do the works of the Messiah, but not necessarily those of the military-political Messiah. Nevertheless, I do the works of the Messiah, and therefore I am the “one who is to come”’” (Daniel J Harringon SJ, op cit, 160).
the blind see etc: The list of works here echoes Isaiah: “Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead (Isaiah 26:19); “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6); “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1).
does not take offense: Daniel Harrington writes: “The Greek verb is skandalizō. Its appearance here expresses the theme of the next few chapters in which people (Pharisees and Jesus’ own family) do take offense at him (ch. 12), and Jesus explains the mixed reception he receives by means of parables (ch. 13). Perhaps the saying also suggests that Jesus realized that even John would not wholly approve of him” (Daniel J Harrington SJ, op cit, 166). It is also worth noting that in Matthew 16:23 Jesus rebukes Peter for being a skandalon when he says he will not let Jesus go to Jerusalem and suffer and die.
Reflection – The dignity of being-in-the-flesh
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 11:2-11 – we meet John the Baptist for the second time. He has a crucial question for Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”. John has in fact already met Jesus at the Jordan River – see 3:13-17. The next time we meet John is in relation to Herod – see 14:1-12. Herod has John executed. Matthew tells us that, “when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself” (14:13). Matthew mentions John two more times. Once when Jesus asks the disciples, “who do they say ‘the Son of Man’ is?” – see 16:14 – and finally at the transfiguration in relation to “Elijah” – see 17:13. Following the transfiguration Jesus declares that John is “the prophet”.
We cannot think of John the Baptist without thinking of Jesus. And we cannot think of Jesus, God’s being-in-the-flesh, without thinking of John the Baptist.
Together with his preaching, John’s very existence calls us to recognize the dignity of being a person. “No one has arisen greater than John the Baptist yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”. I think it is fair to say that, as the messenger of God’s being-in-the-flesh, John also declares the dignity of all being-in-the-flesh.
Dr Anna Rowlands, St Hilda Associate Professor of Catholic Social Thought and Practice at Durham University, links the Incarnation with our dignity as persons. She cites Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI):
“Christ comes to renew in us our call to recognize ourselves as persons: the Incarnation performs a distinctly pedagogical function. However, to grasp what Christ has to teach requires us to remember that Christ is not a creature of exception (a crude superhero figure) but rather the fulfilment of what God intends for the human person, the new and the final Adam set amongst us, set before us. In this sense Christ opens up a space – the space of his own body – in and through which it is possible for us to gather in a new way as persons on the way to life in the Father” (Anna Rowlands, Towards a Politics of Communion: Catholic Social Teaching in Dark Times (p. 90). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition).
Each of us should ask: Who am I? What am I?
Our faith in the Incarnation leads us to respond. Who am I? I am an embodied word of love spoken deliberately by God. My being-in-the-flesh unites me with Jesus’ being-in-the-flesh. What am I? I am a unique place where God enters the world. My being-in-the-flesh is a sacrament of God’s saving presence.
It is worth remembering that, in the thinking of the Old Testament, “personality is an animated body and not an incarnate soul” (Aelred Squire, Asking the Fathers, London: SPCK, 1973, 53). Consider St Paul’s words: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? …That your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit? … glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20).