St. Matthew, the storyteller, cleverly disassociates himself from John’s questions. He tells us John has heard about the “works of the Christ.” Just so we are on the same page, let me remind you that the word “Christ” is not part of Jesus’ name. It is his title. The word “Christ” or “Christos” means “the anointed one,” a common way of referring to the Messiah. So St. Matthew answers John’s question as he relates John’s doubts.
What John had heard about Jesus has raised a question for him. John’s vision of Jesus emphasized punishment, and vindication. Just last week we heard John preaching: “His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” What he is hearing about Jesus does not fit these expectations. So he sends his disciples and urges them to get Jesus to declare himself and clarify the issue.
The phrasing of the question – “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” – sets the tone for whole passage. The Baptist and his disciples are looking for someone. But what exactly are they looking for, what are the deepest desires of their hearts? What are their expectations, their preconceived notions? If they can bring to consciousness the deepest desires of their hearts, they might be able to answer their own question.
Jesus does not answer the question directly. Instead he points to his works. He is applying one of John’s criteria to himself – “You will know them by their fruits.” John’s disciples are to tell John what they see and hear. The implication is that each person must come to their own conclusion about whether Jesus is the one for whom they are waiting. It is more important to grasp the meaning of the works of Jesus than for him to claim a title. Titles, as the Gospels make abundantly clear, are open to misunderstanding. Works are definitive statements.
The works of Jesus are works of restoration. Something that is missing is found. Something that was wounded is healed. Sight, mobility, ritual cleanliness, hearing, life, and dignity are returned to people who did not have them. In the mythology of Gospel times, Jesus is restoring creation, undoing the effects of Adam’s fall. He is connecting people with God, and the symbolic result is a whole human person.
The activity may not be what John is looking for. It does not have the edge of judgment that John’s preaching pushed. Jesus may be an offense to the fierce apocalyptic mindset. But the one who is blessed by God does not take offense at this restoration activity. In fact, rather than taking offense at Jesus, those with eyes of faith will recognize it as both God’s creative activity and the desires of his or her own heart. John thought Jesus was coming to punish sinners, but instead Jesus sat down to eat with them and welcomed them into his presence. John thought that he was unworthy to unstrap Jesus’ sandals, but instead Jesus insists on washing the feet of his disciples.
Just as John’s expectations reveal the kind of Jesus he was hoping for, so too our expectations tell us what kind of Messiah we are looking for. The very reason that Jesus was rejected by the elders of Jerusalem lies in their expectations. When Jesus came preaching that the Kingdom of God belonged to the poor, the men of power and wealth knew that this man was not going to allow them to maintain the status quo – change was on the horizon. Like every human being who has ever lived, they were in favor of change only if it meant that everyone else had to change while they stayed the same.
As we draw near to our annual celebration of Christmas, the Scriptures are asking us to identify our expectations, the deepest desires of our hearts. At the same time, we are called to change. Each of us must come to our own conclusion about whether Jesus is the one for whom we are waiting. Or did we have something else in mind?
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator