“When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’ Jesus said to them in reply,
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‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.’
As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, ‘What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why 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: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you. Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’” (Matthew 11:2-11).
Prophecy during Advent is an illustration of confounded expectations. Jesus has been preaching about how his followers will not be content or successful, but, rather will endure endless persecution in his name. John took a message of repentance to the king and found himself in chains. That might have been John’s first clue that Jesus was telling the truth, but still, where was the purifying fire, the revolution?
There were many messianic figures in those times, stirring the people’s sense of prophecy and superstition. One can understand John’s need to know, as he sat in jail, if Jesus was for real or just another charismatic preacher.
Consider our own expectations and the gospel pattern of confounding them. At this point, each of the answers suggested in the Advent gospel readings seem a little dubious, a little unlikely, yet inevitable. As twentieth century author Flannery O’Connor said, endings, like answers, work that way—we could never have imagined them, but when they come, they feel absolutely true and fitting.
So in today’s gospel reading we see Jesus neatly side-stepping the question of who he is. First, Jesus tells John’s followers to simply report what they have seen: not revolution, not fire, but healing and good news among the poor. Then, he calls John God’s messenger, the one who prepares the way. Yet John has always been a frightening prophet, preparing us for the worst—for being incomplete and unworthy when the Messiah comes. Jesus does not contradict John’s prophecies. The winnowing rod, the burning fire, the avenging Jewish King are still possibilities. By suggesting that the two visions are compatible, he again confounds expectations.
The answers we have been seeking come as a complete surprise, not so much in the “what” but in the fact that the results are actually there for those with the eyes of faith to see, and once realized, they seem inevitable. Jesus is telling John he should trust himself. He who has ears, Jesus will soon say, let him hear.
– What is Jesus asking his followers to rethink about whom to trust and follow?
Adapted from Word on the Go, a downloadable resource from RENEW International.