Third Advent 2007
Isaiah 35: 1-10
Matthew 11: 2-11
The gospel passage that we read this morning has caused a greatdeal of trouble in the history of interpretation. Biblical interpreters from the earliest times to the present have not known quite how to deal with it. It is not that what the text says is hard to understand. That is fairly straightforward. John the Baptist is in prison and he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” The problem is that we already know who John the Baptist is. Phil Harrold did a great job last week of laying out the territory. John has one job. John is the one wearing the camel’s hair bathrobe in all those great Medieval paintings who is pointing to Jesus. That is what John does. He points to Jesus. Now it seems John has forgotten his job description.
The Church Fathers did not know quite what to do with this. John Chrysostom raises all the obvious questions: “He that knew Jesus before His miracles, he that had learned it of the Spirit, he that heard it of the Father, he who had proclaimed him before all; does he now send to learn of him, whether he is himself or not?” Chrysostom points out to John that his reputation is at stake: “If you did not know that Jesus was surely the one,” he asks rhetorically, “how could your have any credibility? If you are going to bear witness to others, you first need to have some credit yourself.” Chrysostom imaginatively grills John: “Didn’t you say that you were not worthy to untie his shoes? Didn’t you say that he sent you to baptize? Didn’t you see the Spirit descend, and hear the voice that said ‘This is my beloved Son?’ Didn’t you leap in the womb when you were a baby?” Chrysostom is having none of this “Are you the one who is to come or should we expect another?” business.
Commentators try a number of ways to get out of the problem. Modern ones are no different. The standard higher-critical approach is to define the problem away. Perhaps, suggests, one commentator, what we have is a tradition that goes back to John’s early ministry, before he had met Jesus. So John was really asking a genuine question. He did not yet know who Jesus was. Matthew and Luke (who also has the same pericope) just got the story in the wrong place. As if the modern critic is smart enough to notice that there is a problem, but the gospel writers just forgot all that stuff they had put about John in the beginning of their gospels. Another higher-critical solution is just to take the passage out its gospel context altogether. What we have is an account that actually reflects a later controversy between disciples of John and disciples of Jesus as to whether Jesus or John was the genuine article. At some point, the gospel writers put the material reflecting a later controversy back into the ministry of Jesus. In other words: “Never happened. Doesn’t concern us. Nothing to see here. Move along.” That is, of course, a handy way to deal with the problem by avoiding actually having to deal with the passage.
The Fathers have a number of possible solutions. The one most frequently adopted has some surprisingly similarities to the modern historical-critical position. The Fathers cannot bring themselves to believe that John could not know what he had already made clear. They are also not willing to believe that John might have suffered a lapse of doubt or uncertainty. Such behavior would have been unworthy of a Saint like John. So John Chrysostom offers the way out. The problem is not with John the Baptist, but with his disciples. Though John’s faith did not waver, he was concerned about his disciples. Knowing that he was about to die, John was concerned that afterwards, his disciples might forget why he had come. John sends a couple of his disciples to Jesus so that, when they saw Jesus’ miracles firsthand, they would know the difference between the forerunner and the real deal. Jesus knows why John has sent the disciples, and, although he could simply have answered their question outright, he decides instead to give John’s disciples an object lesson. He performs some miracles right on the spot, then tells the disciples to go and tell John what you, that is, John’s disciples, have seen. When Jesus says “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me,” he is referring to John’s disciples, not to John himself. This solution is one that is adopted by numerous Church Fathers, including Jerome, Gregory the Great, and Hilary. Calvin adopts the same interpretation.
The solution is a neat one. It avoids the apparent contradiction in John’s behavior. It saves John’s reputation. He can continue to be the saint in the Medieval paintings whose job is to point. And, in a kind of convoluted way, it deals with the various elements in the text. But, like the higher-critical solutions, it does so by hedging. It is a solution whose purpose is not to explain the plain meaning of what the text actually says, but to explain it away—to find a way around it. So, for all the respect we have for the Church Fathers, this explanation won’t do.
A third interpretation, which I find only in some modern interpreters, is what I might call the moralistic interpretation. Matthew Henry, for example, writing in the early 1700’s, suggests that John had been in prison a long time, and Jesus had not even visited him. The best of us might get discouraged under such circumstances. Henry points out that Jesus probably had good reason for not visiting John in prison, but there you have it. Who would not get discouraged? And Henry draws an appropriate moralistic conclusion: When we get discouraged in faith, we need a little help. Those of us who are strong ought to help out the weak, and if we cannot do it ourselves, we ought to send someone who can. So Jesus sends the disciples back to boost John’s spirits. And, adds Henry, if John’s faith was not discouraged after all, and he was worried about his disciples’ faith instead, so much the better. A minister’s job is to bring people to Christ. If we want to be like John’s disciples, we need to be inquisitive, and search out Christ for ourselves. So Matthew Henry is able to turn any possible interpretation to a moralistic conclusion. Henry is, at least, a little more willing to consider the text for what it actually says, but he does not draw his conclusions from the text itself. He uses the text to provide good advice that is not really contained in the text.
The best explanation that I have come across for resolving the difficulties raised by John’s doubts views John’s discouragement as genuine, but his question as largely rhetorical. John is really asking something like the following: “When are you going to act? Since you are the Messiah, why are you not acting like the Messiah? Specifically, since I am the one who announced your coming, what am I doing in prison?”
As a further clue to John’s questions, it is perhaps helpful to contrast two different understandings of eschatology. Both John’s and Jesus’ messages were at heart eschatological. Both preached a variation on the message, “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand!” Having noted the commonality, we should pay close attention to the more specific content of John’s preaching. John had preached Jesus as the one whose “winnowing fork is in his hand,” who would “clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn,” and “burn the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
But this had not happened. Far from the wheat being separated from the chaff, the chaff were still in charge, and John was now facing Herod’s imminent judgment. Unless something happened soon, he knew his days were numbered. John was no doubt also aware of such eschatological passages as the one from Isaiah 35 in this morning’s lectionary. Isaiah writes: “Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God.” The passage concludes “[T]he ransom of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” And that had not happened either. John was certainly experiencing sorrow and sighing.
What is Jesus’ response?
Jesus does not rebuke John, but the text says that he answers him in kind. The text says that “when John heard in prison about the deeds of Christ” he sent his disciples to ask whether Jesus was not after all the one to come. Clearly, it was hearing about Jesus’ miracles that had led John to ask his question. Jesus was performing the signs and wonders of a prophet; yet he was not acting like a prophet.
Jesus responds to John’s asking about the meaning of his deeds by pointing John to the very deeds that had led John to ask the question: “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 the one who is not offended by me.”
Does Jesus answer John’s question? There is a very real sense in which he does not. John already knew about Jesus’ deeds. That is what motivated him to ask the question. Yet Jesus simply points to the deeds. And does nothing about John’s situation. Not only is John in prison, but he stays in prison. And, shortly after, John dies in prison.
So we can imagine that, if John were like most of us, he might experience small comfort from such reassurance. “Thanks, Jesus. You’re healing people and stuff. Meanwhile, I’m in prison, and, by the way, you’re not separating the wheat from the chaff.”
But, in another sense, Jesus does indeed address John’s eschatological concerns. He addresses them by correcting them. Jesus cites or rather paraphrases Isaiah 35, the Old Testament passage from this morning’s lectionary, indicating that by giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, his actions are the fulfillment of Isaiah’s eschatological vision. He also adds one last sentence: “The poor have the good news preached to them.” That last part is a reference to Isaiah 61:1—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” —the same passage with which Jesus begins his ministry in the synagogue reading of Luke ch. 4.
It is a safe bet that in echoing this passage from the second half of Isaiah, Jesus was identifying himself with the Suffering Servant who appears throughout Isaiah 40-66, and thus corrects John’s eschatological vision. By merging the role of Messiah—the one who gives sight to the blind, and makes the lame walk –with the role of the Suffering Servant who was “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Is. 53:3), Jesus indicated that the eschatological Kingdom of God would eliminate “sorrow and sighing” not by passing judgment on the unrighteous (separating out the wheat from the chaff), but by bearing the Judgment imposed on him by the unrighteous through his death on the cross. The eschatological Kingdom would only happen through resurrection, and resurrection lay on the other side of crucifixion. The path to the Kingdom of God comes through suffering.
As Jesus’ own path led through suffering and death so also John’s mission would not culminate in a separating of the wheat from the chaff, but in an anticipation of Jesus’ own suffering. And so, Jesus’ warning: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
But at the same time that Jesus corrects John, he also praises him. Jesus says that John is the last of the prophets, and that, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” Yet John is part of the old order. The least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than John. What does Jesus mean? The Kingdom of God in the ministry of Jesus is indeed something new. Where the Old Testament looked forward to the coming Kingdom as a future event, the heart of Jesus’ ministry is that it is in some sense already here. That is why he can appeal to his miracles—that the blind see and the deaf hear is a sign of the presence of the coming Kingdom.
Karl Barth asks about the sense of the miracle stories in the Bible. He points out that they function as a kind of “alarm signal” to point out to us that something new is happening here. Although they take place in ordinary time and space, the miracles cannot be identified with other events in time and space. What is the new in the Bible’s miraculous events? Barth says that miracles produce a change in the ordinary course of things that threaten and oppress human beings. The changes brought by the biblical miracles are isolated and temporary. It has often been pointed out that not all of the blind and lame who lived in Palestine in the first century were healed by Jesus. And, yet, and this is again, Barth, Jesus’ miracles are “radically helpful and saving.” In Barth’s own words:
What took place were promises and intimations, anticipations of a redeemed nature, of a state of freedom, of a kind of life in which there will be no more sorrow, tears, and crying, and where death as the last enemy will be no more. What is communicated under the form of these little lights is always the reflected brightness of the great light which draws near to the men of the present in the form of hope. 1
What is new in miracles, says Barth, is the “kindling of the light of hope,” that is the “really surprising” element in the miracle stories. Might I suggest that that element of hope is part of the answer that Jesus addresses to John when he points him to his deeds. There is indeed a Kingdom that is coming. And the signs that Jesus performs are signs and glimpses of its presence. But it is not here yet, at least not in its fullness. And so the Romans are still in charge. And John waits in prison. And Jesus approaches the cross.
But there is another element in the miracle stories that is even more important, and it also lies behind Jesus’ answer to John. When John’s followers ask Jesus the question—“Are you the one to come or shall we look for another?”—he answers the question by pointing to his own deeds. When he says “the poor have good news preached to them,” it is as if he had said, “You do not need to look elsewhere. I am the One.”
Again, Barth is helpful here. He says that by Jesus’ deeds, he proclaimed himself. Jesus himself, says Barth, “is the new event, the great light of hope that has already come and will come again after having shined provisionally in these little lights.”2 God’s new event is the reconciliation between God and humanity that has taken place in Jesus Christ. In Jesus’ crucifixion as the Suffering Servant and his resurrection as the Son of God, the Kingdom has come near. We need look no further.
In a very real sense, Jesus did not answer John’s questions. John is a true type of the cry of the Psalmist or the voice from Lamentations who asks: “Lord, how long?” And, in a very real sense, Jesus did not deliver his people from exile. John was beheaded. In 70 AD, Titus destroyed Jerusalem.
Yet Jesus did answer John’s questions. In his healings, in his miracles, in his preaching of Good News to the poor, Jesus gives glimpses of the coming Kingdom. But more than that, Jesus is himself the answer to John’s question, and ours.
It is Advent. We look around, and we see a world that is still in the clutches of evil. There are rulers in the world who are every bit as wicked as were King Herod and Pontius Pilate. We look to the land of Jesus’ ministry, and see that it is still a place of violence. We look at our own church, and we find it divided about what it means to even believe in or follow Jesus. Advent looks forward to judgment, and we might find ourselves asking, “When will the wheat be separated from the chaff?”
We might well be tempted to ask of Jesus the question that John asked: If you are the Messiah, why aren’t you acting like the Messiah? And Jesus would have only one answer to give, the same he gave to John.
Advent is also the time of hope, and as we look around, as did John, we see signs of the presence of that future time when every tear will be wiped away. The bread that we break and the cup that we drink, are they not the broken body and poured out blood of Christ? Do we not see in our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ the blind whose eyes have been opened by Jesus, the deaf who have learned to hear, the lame who have been made to walk? Are they not the body of Christ? As we live in what is the wealthiest country in the world, and we study in a town like Ambridge, do we not look around and see plenty of poor who still need the Good News preached to them?
And, finally, as Advent draws us near to the season of Christmas, and we are reminded again of God’s coming among us as a human child, we hear the answer to our question: Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another? Jesus gives only one answer to that question, and that is himself. We do not need to look elsewhere.
1. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing
Co., 1979), 67, 68-69.
2. Barth, 70.