Matthew 11:2-11. John the Baptist. Herald of the Messiah, Part II.

John the Baptist. By Mattia Preti 1667, oil on canvas.

The Gospel reading for Gaudete Sunday – the third Sunday in Advent – is Mt 11:2-11.  In this reading we find John the Baptist already languishing in prison.  He had publicly challenged Herod (Mk 6:18) for taking his brother’s wife as his own, which is a violation of Jewish law. While in prison, John still manages to send an emissary to Jesus to inquire… Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another? To which Jesus answers:

“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.”

Jesus responds with neither a “yes” nor a “no” to John’s question.  Instead, Jesus reports that the mighty works of the Lord – raising the dead, healing the lame, curing the blind – are performed in the presence of many (Mt 11:21-24).  Without directly answering John’s question, Jesus clearly confirms that the answer is “yes!”  Jesus’ attestation to the mighty works being done is also intended to encourage and strengthen his cousin John.

I could digress and speak of the “Mighty Works of the Lord” (who says works have nothing to do with salvation?!).  However, the question first needs to be asked; did John the Baptist’s faith waiver?  Does he not know that his cousin is the messiah?   I don’t agree with some who say John, in prison, started to doubt.

I think the question, as posed by John, is both historically likely, and also Matthew’s literary device to allow Jesus to answer the question about being the Messiah in his own words.  In the first place, the matter is not so much the so-called  “waivering faith” of John the Baptist as it is “confirmation” of something John cannot witness for himself – the ministry of Jesus.

Though Jesus often speaks elliptically, the answer he sends back to John- the lame walk, the dead are raised… – is still self-evident. Jesus is telling his cousin, Well, what do you think? After answering John’s question, Jesus turns to his disciples and, for posterity’s sake, heaps very generous praise on his cousin:

“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.”

These are not merely random thoughts.  Jesus is confirming John’s role as herald of the Messiah.  Jesus says that John is, in fact more than a prophet.  The Sacred Author Mark goes even further, telling us that all held that John was a prophet (Mk 11:32).  Without explicitly calling himself the “Messiah” or “the Son of God,” Jesus communicates to his audience his very high regard for his cousin, the baptizer, who invoked the prophet Isaiah and announced the coming of the Messiah.

Finally, we should acknowledge that John and Jesus are not linked exclusively by their adult ministry: their births are connected as well.   Elizabeth, the mother of John, is the first to recognize Mary as the Mother of [the] Lord (Lk 1:43).  In Luke’s Gospel, an angel tells Zechariah that his son John will make ready for the Lord a people prepared (Lk 1:17). While John the Baptist is not an apostle of the Lord, he is a unique bridge between the Old Law and the New.  His ministry was not that of a disciple. Rather, John’s role was to prepare Galilee for the coming of the Lord.

The Orthodox churches hold John in high regard.  They have several days in the liturgical year dedicated to him.  He is known as “John the Forerunner,” as he preached the coming of the Messiah.  Renaissance painters were also fascinated with John.  Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Trevisani, Jan Brueghel, Titian, Donatello, Raphael, and Ghirlandaio have all commissioned art depicting the life of John.

Scriptural passages featuring John the Baptist:

Matthew 3:1-6. Matthew 3:8-17. Matthew 4:12-17. Matthew 14:1-13Mark 1:1-10.  Mark 6:14-30. Mark 11:28-33Luke 1:11-17 Luke 1:57-63 Luke 3:1-7 Luke 3:10-20 Luke 7:13-23 Luke 9: 7-9 Luke 20:3-8

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