Celebrating the Word of God

Commentary on the Readings

3rd Sunday of Advent – December 15, 2019 – Year A

The Baptist Invited to be Converted


“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (Jn 1:6). He was destined to prepare Israel for the coming of the Messiah. He said, “Repent because the kingdom of the heaven is now at hand” (Mt 3:2).

His message is clear; the language is harsh; the proposal demanding.

Austere and blameless, he gave the impression of being a master of life. He is confident in himself and his own certainties, firm, and unyielding. However, like everyone else, he had perplexities, anxieties, and inner torments.

Jesus cultivated a profound respect for him and understood him. One day he asked him to review his own theological and religious convictions. He made him understand that he had to realize in himself the conversion he asked others for. Last Sunday’s liturgy contained the message of John the Baptist. Today it presents us with his example.

John did not teach only in words but showed with his life, how we must always be ready to call into question our own securities when we are confronted with the novelty of God.

Like him, anyone who is in passionate pursuit of truth should be prepared to meet the Truth.

To internalize the message, we repeat:
“The Lord does not come to condemn, but to heal.”

First Reading: Isaiah 35:1-6a,10

Predictions about the future of the planet are bleak. For some, they are even catastrophic. The social, political, and economic realities of the world present themselves fraught with tension. One does not know how they can be resolved. The crisis of faith, loss of values, and the weakening of many certainties portend difficult years. This, in a nutshell, I think is the synthesis of popular opinions about the future of our planet.

One listens to the First Reading, presenting words full of joy and hope. One supposes that the prophet has spoken at a different time from ours. That is not so.

He lived in one of the most difficult periods in the history of his people. Jerusalem and its wonderful temple were destroyed. The most capable and prepared persons were deported to Babylon. The holy city was reduced to a pile of rubble. There were only the old, the sick, and the children. Silence and death reigned over all. No song, no cry of joy, only sadness, and many tears!

The hill on which the town was built, now ruined and devastated, is reduced to a desert where not a blade of grass grows. In the face of such desolation, who would have the courage to announce a party, to invite to jubilation, and to rejoice?

Well, just in front of these ruins, the prophet announces the appearance of his oracle, full of optimism. He is a sensitive man; he has the soul of a poet and expresses himself in delightful imagery.

The desert, he says, is going to turn into a plain as fertile as that of Sharon, along the coast of the Mediterranean. It is covered with leafy trees, mighty as the cedars of Lebanon; in a perpetual spring, it is transformed into a carpet of aromatic herbs and flowers. Opium flowers and lilies bloom, symbols of joy, and dreams of lovers. Everywhere the songs of joy and rejoicing are heard (vv. 1-2).

Wonder? No! It contemplates the wonderful work that God is going to accomplish.

If one trusts the Lord, discouragement, letting the arms fall or the knees tremble, has no meaning.

Who gives up in the face of evil? Whoever considers it inevitable, shows a disbelief in the love and fidelity of God who is personally involved in the history of his people. Whoever believes is never devastated, but instead convinced that where there is an arid and inhospitable desert, a garden will flourish one day (vv. 3-4).

In the second part of the reading (vv. 5-6), the prophet continues to present the miraculous transformation of a divinely wrought world.

To describe it, he employs the image of recovery from illnesses: the eyes of the blind will open; the deaf will hear; the lame will leap like a kid; the tongue of the mute will shout for joy.

Each disease, whether physical, mental, or spiritual, is a form of death. Where the God of life arrives, every evil, every death disappears.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus invites the Baptist to take note of the transformation already inaugurated in the world. The power of his word is making “flowers blossom in the desert.”

The last part of the reading (vv. 8-10) describes the way towards the new reality by introducing a splendid picture: the pilgrimage of the people from the land of slavery to Mount Zion, to the unforgettable Jerusalem, the city of joy and freedom. It’s the symbol of the journey of the whole humanity towards life.

The road ahead will be called “holy way” because it will not be trampled by impure feet. As we know it today, it is the way that Jesus traveled, one that leads to the gift of life.

The image becomes elaborate. The prophet sees the characters who take part in this procession: in the front, as a guide advances, perennial happiness, followed by joy and cheerfulness. Two dark shapes could be seen on the horizon – sadness and tears. Defeated, they distance themselves from each other and are escaping. These are the words of God denouncing the prophets of doom.

Despite contrary signs, the believer recognizes that the Lord “enlightens those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death and guides his/her steps in the ways of peace” (Lk 1:79).

Second Reading: James 5:7-10

Jesus denounced the dangers of wealth. The one who hoards worldly goods, he called a fool. But he never hurled invectives against anyone because of wealth. Here we have what James says to the rich: “ …You deceived the workers who harvested your fields but now their wages cry out to the heavens. The reapers’ complaints have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You lived in luxury and pleasure in this world thus fattening yourselves for the days of slaughter. You have easily condemned and killed the innocent since they offered no resistance” (Jas 5:1-6).

After attacking the rich in this way, James turns to the poor. This is the passage contained in today’s reading. What does he recommend to them? What counsel does he give to the exploited? Revolt, revenge? No, patience.

This word is repeated four times. “Be patient” (vv. 7-8), “do not complain” (v. 9), “bear” (v. 10). They seem to be irritating, abrupt and provocative exhortations. James is not the type to tolerate injustice against the poor. However, he realizes that there are situations in which, after having done everything possible, one just has to wait patiently.

To explain his thoughts, he invents an example from the life of a farmer.

What does a farmer do? He does not sit down and look at the field, hoping that it will produce a harvest of its own accord. He is fully committed to work: hoeing, sowing, irrigating, and weeding, but he also knows how to wait. He knows the irresistible force of the seed; he trusts the land that has never betrayed him. He believes that the Lord will do his part and will send the rain that benefits and enriches the ground in the fall and spring. The farmer is not discouraged, even if months pass before the mature grain appears.

James concludes by suggesting to the poor: in your pain, you do everything you can, try to obtain justice, but do not commit violence against the one who oppresses you and do not complain to the one near you (v. 9).

It often happens that the poor, humiliated by the master, reacts and becomes aggressive and hard against their “neighbor”: wife, husband, children, or weaker people nearby.

The poor nourish the hope that the Lord will intervene to change their situation. His “coming” is near.

Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11

It’s not easy to recognize God’s Messiah.

Educated by the prophets, Israel has been waiting for centuries. When he came, even the more spiritually prepared and well-disposed persons struggled to recognize and to welcome him. The Baptist also remained indecisive.

But a messiah who does not surprise, or arouse wonder and disbelief, cannot come from God. It would be too consistent with our logic and our expectation. God thinks differently from us.

In the first part of today’s Gospel (vv. 2-6) a doubt that arose in the mind of the precursor, and the answer given by Jesus are presented.

John is in prison and the reason is narrated in Mt 14:1-12. He denounced the immoral behavior of Herod who took his brother’s wife. Josephus Flavius wrote that John was locked up in the Machaerian fortress. He was treated with respect and could receive visits from the disciples. He was eager to witness to the coming of the Kingdom of God. He kept himself informed on how Jesus of Nazareth, who he singled out as the Messiah, was behaving.

However, his faith begins to waver. Some say that the doubts are not John’s, but his disciples’. That is not so. From the Gospel, it comes out that he himself doubted if Jesus was the Messiah. For this reason, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who must come, or do we have to wait for another?” (v. 3).

How did these perplexities come to him?

The answer is quite simple. It is enough to keep in mind the image of a messiah John had learned since the beginning from the spiritual leaders of his people.

He is in prison and is conscious of what the prophets have foretold. He has been expecting the “liberator” (Is 61:1), the person in charge of restoring justice and truth in the world. He does not understand why Jesus did not decide to intervene in his favor.

John awaits a strict judge, a messiah who rails against the wicked. Here, we have a surprise instead. Not only does Jesus not condemn sinners, he even eats with them and takes pride in being their friend (Lk 7:34). He recommends not the quenching of the dimly burning wick, but taking care of the “bruised reed.” He does not destroy anything but recovers and repairs what is ruined. He does not burn sinners but changes their hearts and wants them to be happy at all costs. He has words of salvation for those who have lost all hope, and those avoided by all, like the lepers. He is not discouraged in the face of human problems. He does not give up even in death.

To the messengers of John the Baptist, Jesus is presented as the Messiah, listing the signs taken from the texts of Isaiah (Is 35:5-6; 26:19; 61:1), the prophet of hope, who had predicted, “On that day no one would complain: I am sickly.” (Is 33:24).

The Baptist is invited to take note of six new realities: the healing of the blind, the deaf, the leper, the crippled, the resurrection of the dead, and the proclamation of the Gospel to the poor. These are all signs of salvation, not of condemnation.

The new world has come: those who were walking in the dark and had lost the orientation of life are now enlightened by the Gospel. Whoever was crippled and could not move a step towards the Lord and towards their brothers and sisters can now walk quickly. Whoever was deaf to the Word of God, now listens and lets himself be guided by it. Whoever was ashamed of himself, of the leprosy of sin that kept him away from God and from their brothers and sisters, now feels cleansed. Whoever did only the dead work of self-righteousness, now fully lives his life. Whoever regarded himself miserable and hopeless has begun to listen to the good news: “There is salvation for you as well.”

The Messiah of God has nothing to do with the energetic and severe character that John had expected. His way of doing had scandalized the precursor and continues to shock us even today. There are, still, some who ask the Lord to intervene to punish the wicked. There are still some who interpret misfortunes as God’s punishment on those who have done evil. But can God be angry or feel pleasure in seeing His children (even if bad) suffer?

Jesus ends his answer with a beatitude, the tenth, found in the Gospel of Matthew: “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” What a sweet invitation to the Baptist to review his theological convictions.

A good God contradicts all the beliefs that John had. Like us, the Baptist also imagined a mighty God. Finding himself weak, he expected sensational interventions. However, the events continued to unfold as if the Messiah had not come.

Blessed is he who receives God just as God is, not as one would like God to be! Faith in the God who reveals Himself in Jesus cannot be but accompanied by doubt, uncertainty, and the inability to believe.

The Baptist is the figure of a true believer. He flounders in many perplexities, asks questions, but does not deny the Messiah because he does not match his own criteria. He calls into question his own beliefs.

He is not worried about who has trouble believing, who feels lost in front of the mystery and puzzles of existence, who says that he or she does not understand the thoughts and actions of God. He is worried about those who confuse one’s own beliefs with the truth of God, those who have ready answers to all questions, those who have always some dogma to impose, those who never allow themselves to be questioned: such a faith at times borders on fanaticism.

When the disciples of John left, Jesus pronounced his judgment on him with three rhetorical questions. It is the second part of today’s Gospel (vv. 7-11).

The answers to the first two are obvious: the Baptist is not like the reeds that grow along the Jordan, symbols of volatility because they bend according to the direction of the wind. John is not an opportunist who adapts to all situations and bows in front of the powers-that-be. On the contrary, he is one who is firmly opposed to the same political leaders, challenging the king head-on, and yet not afraid to say what he thinks.

John is not a corrupt man, who thinks about his own interests, accumulates money unscrupulously and squanders it on entertainment, and elegant and refined clothes. The corrupt—Jesus says—are the kings and their courtiers, the rich, the leaders who imprisoned him.

The third question requires a positive response: John is a prophet and indeed more than a prophet. No one in the Old Testament undertook a mission beyond his. More than Moses, he is an “angel” sent to precede the liberating coming of the Lord.

The final addition is significant: “The smallest in the kingdom of heaven is greater than him” (v. 11).

Jesus did not establish a ranked list based on personal holiness and perfection but calls to verify the superiority of the condition of the disciples. Whoever belongs to the kingdom of heaven is able to see far more than John the Baptist. Whoever captures the new face of God, whoever understands that the Messiah has come to him/her to forgive, to welcome, and to love him/her, has entered the new perspective; the perspective of God.

What we, today, can see and understand, regardless of our personal holiness is what the Baptist had only guessed because he remained at the threshold of the new era.

Read: The question of the Baptist seems not to take into account what is related in 3:13-15. However, Matthew reveals that Jesus is the true Messiah, God’s anointed (some thought the Baptist was).

Reflect: What kind of Messiah did the people of Israel expect? What kind of Messiah do you expect? Does the Jesus of the Gospel satisfy your hopes?

Pray: Ask God to help you recognize Jesus as the Messiah. And may such recognition push you to work for his kingdom.

Act: May your life be a testimony of Jesus to others.

There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading.

Fernando Armellini

Fernando Armellini is an Italian missionary and biblical scholar. With his permission we have begun translating his Sunday reflections on the three readings from the original Italian into English.

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Sunday Reflection

There is a video available by Fr. Fernando Armellini with commentary for today’s Gospel