by Fr. Tommy Lane
John the Baptist was imprisoned in Herod’s fortress in Machaerus by King Herod Antipas, according to the Jewish historian Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 18 §§116-119). Where the Jordan flows into the Dead Sea is the lowest point on the surface of the earth, and the prison was fifteen miles south east of there and therefore very hot. It would have been particularly difficult because of the heat. John’s disciples must have had many questions now and wondered about their future. Concerned for his disciples’ well-being John sends his disciples to Jesus with a question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matt 11:3) John had been cleansed of original sin and leapt in the womb of his mother when Mary visited Elizabeth. John had spent his whole life preparing to announce Christ and as we heard last Sunday he proclaimed that he was not even worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals and Jesus’ Spirit baptism would be beyond comparison with John’s water baptism. Is John the Baptist now losing faith in Jesus? While modern scholarship almost invariably says that John is losing faith in Jesus, that interpretation is in vogue for perhaps only 200 years. On the other hand the Church Fathers state that John’s question is not for John’s own benefit but for that of John’s disciples (e.g. St. Jerome Commentary on Matthew 2.11.3). John surely knows that there will not be a good outcome to his imprisonment and wants his disciples to make contact with Jesus to be prepared for what will happen.
It worked. In a more literal translation Jesus says to John’s disciples, “Go and announce to John…” In the Greek, its structure parallels exactly Jesus’ command to his apostles at the end of the Gospel (Matt 28:19), “Go and teach all nations…” John’s disciples have now in a sense become Jesus’ disciples and he sends them to teach what they see and hear. They have passed from John to Jesus and are already sent to proclaim. However John’s disciples can only make that transition successfully if they, as Jesus says, take no offense in him. (Matt 11:6) More literally in the Greek Jesus says, “Blessed is he who is not scandalized in me.” (Matt 11:6) A scandalon, in Greek (σκάνδαλον), is a stone that one stumbles over. Jesus says to John’s disciples that they are blessed if their faith in Jesus does not stumble because John is now in prison. Blessed are you if you do not stumble when the cross comes your way.
John’s disciples may have had many reasons to doubt that Jesus was “the one who is to come.” (Matt 11:3) Jesus was not doing what the expected Messiah would do. While we might think it obvious that Jesus as the miracle worker described by the Gospel today (Matt 11:5) fulfills Isaiah’s description in the first reading (Isa 35), yet performing miracles was not commonly associated with the expected Messiah. Only one Jewish text associated the Messiah with miracles fulfilling our first reading, and that text was found in Cave Four in Qumran only in 1947. The concept of Messiah was not static in Old Testament thought and changed with events. The first big development in the concept of Messiah comes as a result of Nathan’s prophecy to David that a son would reign on his throne forever, and this future time was described almost as a golden age in various passages in Isaiah. However David’s descendents on the throne did not live up to their high calling and eventually the monarchy collapsed altogether. The next big development was around the time of the Maccabean Revolt when the author of the Book of Daniel saw the Son of Man having dominion over all nations. Still the hope for a king-like Messiah descended from David endured.
Jesus expanded and exploded the previous notions of Messiah. Jesus was the Messiah, although different than expected. Much more exploding of previous notions of the Messiah would come later during Jesus’ Passion, Death and Resurrection. Just as Jesus expanded and exploded his contemporaries’ expectations of the Messiah, Jesus wants to expand and explode our expectations of him. Once we allow Jesus to expand and explode our expectations of him then we also allow Jesus to expand and explode our expectations of ourselves and of others. Jesus does not sell you short so why should you sell yourself short? Just as we see John’s disciples, in a sense, transitioning from John to Jesus, we too are called to grow ever more as disciples of Jesus with exploded vision. Yes, being Jesus’ disciples does include the Passion as John and his disciples are already learning, but blessed is he who is not scandalized in Jesus. During Advent, especially after December 8th, we think of Our Lady. Even more than John the Baptist she shared in the Passion of Jesus as she stood beneath the Cross. She did not stumble over any scandalon in Jesus’ life but was there to the end. She is the perfect example of not stumbling over the scandalon of the Passion. Jesus wants to expand and explode our understanding of him and of us. It includes the Passion but blessed is he who is not scandalized in Jesus.
Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2010
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