Third Sunday of Advent, Year A
If you haven't seen my entry for last week, you might want to check it out, as it discusses this Sunday's gospel as well as last Sunday's in ways that could be helpful.
Some historical trivia related to this passage: some commentators remark on John's being able to communicate with outsiders, such that he can send messengers to Jesus to ask a question, as if this were odd or unrealistic. It isn't. Ancient prisons didn't provide prisoners with food and other necessities; prisoners depended for these entirely on family members or others to provide for them. Someone like John, who was a popular leader, would have followers bringing him food and such, and they would have plenty of opportunity to convey messages. Others prisoners weren't so lucky, which is why Matthew 28's "parable of the sheep and the goats" points to visiting those in prison as a vital ministry. Without visitors, prisoners wouldn't just be starving for companionship; they would starve.
I find an interesting parallel in Luke 4:16-30 to what's going on in this Sunday's gospel passage from Matthew. Luke 4 shows Jesus claiming a passage from Isaiah -- Isaiah 61 -- as his mission statement. Jesus makes an important change to the passage, though, eliminating one phrase -- "a day of vengeance for our God" -- from the Isaiah 61 passage, and substituting a clause from Isaiah 42:7 -- "the recovery of sight to the blind" -- instead. In other words, Jesus rejects bringing vengeance as part of his mission.
That story doesn't appear in Matthew, but the thrust of it does appear, and particularly in the material Matthew shares with Luke (the material that scholars hypothesize comes from a shared source we call "Q") about Jesus' relationship with John the Baptizer.
This Sunday's gospel comes from that material. John is in prison, but he receives word from his followers about how Jesus is carrying out his mission -- and John is not pleased. John spoke of a mighty one coming to baptize the righteous with the Holy Spirit and the wicked with fire to destroy them. Jesus talks about and does plenty of Holy Spirit things -- healings and Good News and liberation -- but he doesn't talk much at all about fire and destruction, and more importantly, he hasn't DONE any of the fire and destruction stuff at all. He doesn't even seem to talk about it as part of his future plans. So where's the smiting?
I'm not particularly proud of it, but I do speak with authority as someone who's longed for some smiting myself. I'm guessing that if any of us were being completely honest, there's someone, if not a whole group of someones, out there whom we really think the world would be better off without (like KoKo's list from The Mikado). There's someone who we think is holding back the kind of world God wants to bring into being, and we think that God can't bring that world until people like that either get with the program or (more likely) get what they deserve.
God preserve me from getting what I deserve when I'm tempted to think like that.
Or -- old habits die hard -- maybe God has a different way of reckoning "deserving." In the end, it really IS "who you know," and on some level (anyone seriously into natural theology or Romans 1 admits) we all know the one who created us, the one God whose child we are. What would it do to our ways of reckoning who deserves what if we took Jesus seriously as the Incarnation of God, and Jesus' treatment of people as the ultimate demonstration of what God thinks we deserve?
We deserve healing, and teaching -- and honesty, to be sure, but honesty delivered with pastoral sensitivity to each person's condition. And what happens when we treat God's healing, and teaching, and honesty with disrespect? What happens when we reject it, or even reject God?
Look at what Jesus did when he was disrespected, rejected, even murdered in the most brutal and lingering of ways. He took it all, and forgave those who dished it out. When he came back afterward, he didn't come back like Arnold Schwarzeneggar in The Terminator, rising from each blow to dish out better than what he got to the one who gave it to him; he came back pretty much with the same attitude and behavior he exhibited before his crucifixion.
So what kind of Jesus are we expecting will be coming back at the climax of all things? Are we hoping that this next time, or at the last time, Jesus will finally come back as The Terminator? If so, we'll be just as disappointed, if not more so, than John the Baptizer was in Matthew 11. Or is it the Jesus we're longing for, the Jesus our lives as well as our lips confess is coming again to judge the living and the dead, the Jesus whom John's followers were told about?
That's the only Christ there is. That Jesus -- his humble service to the poor, the outcast, and the sinner, his willingness to eat with Pharisees as well as tax collectors and prostitutes, and most of all, his willingness to die on a Roman cross rather than retaliate against those who treated him and his people brutally -- is the judge of the nations, God's final answer to the question of what humanity, at its worst or its best, really deserves, in God's reckoning, in God's time. the extent to which I can finally embrace that truth, the extent to which I can receive others with the kind of generosity with which Jesus received those who came to him, is the extent to which I can understand just how boundless God's generosity, forgiveness, and love are toward someone like me.
And so I can say with all my heart, Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!
Thanks be to God.