Commentary on the Readings
3rd Sunday of Advent – 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. “Repent—he said—because the kingdom of the heaven is now at hand” (Mt 3:2).
His message is clear; the language is hard; the proposal is demanding.
Austere and blameless, he gave the impression of being a master of life. He is confident of himself and his own certainties, firm, 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 to do. Last Sunday’s liturgy brought 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 a 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.”
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 rubbles. There were only the old, the sick, and children. Silence and death reigned on 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, to rejoice?
Well, just in front of these ruins, the prophet announces his oracle, full of optimism. He is a sensitive man; he has the soul of a poet and expresses himself with delightful images.
The desert—he says—is going to turn into a fertile plain 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, have no meaning.
Who gives up in the face of evil? Whoever considers it inevitable, shows that s/he does not believe in the love and faithfulness of God who is personally involved in the history of his people. Whoever believes is never thrown down, instead, is convinced that today, where there is an arid and inhospitable desert, one day, a garden will flourish (vv. 3-4).
In the second part of the reading (vv. 5-6), the prophet continues to present the miraculous transformations 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—physical, mental, 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 transformations 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. It is the way—as we know it today—that Jesus traveled, the 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 crying, 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).
Jesus denounced the dangers of wealth. The one who hoards goods, he called a fool. But he never hurled invectives against someone because he was rich. Here we have what James says to the rich: “Cry and weep for the misfortunes that are coming upon you. Your riches are rotting… 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 having attacked 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 makes up an example of the farmer.
What does a farmer do? He does not sit down to look at the field, hoping that it produces a harvest by itself. He is fully committed to work: hoeing, sowing, irrigating, 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 his/her master, reacts and becomes aggressive and hard against one’s “neighbor”: wife, husband, children, or weaker people nearby.
The poor nourishes the hope that the Lord will intervene to change their situation. His “coming” is near.
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 to our logic and our expectations. God thinks differently from us.
In the first part of today’s Gospel (vv. 2-6) a doubt that, one day, came up to 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 of the disciples. He was eager to witness 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 Messiah John had learned from 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.
He awaits for a strict judge, a messiah who rails against the wicked. Here, instead, we have a surprise. Not only that he does not condemn sinners, he even eats with them and takes pride in being their friend (Lk 7:34). He recommends not to quench the dimly burning wick and suggests to take 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 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 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 lepers, 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 up: those who were walking in the dark and had lost the orientation of life, now is enlightened by the Gospel. Whoever was crippled and could not move a step towards the Lord and towards their brothers and sisters now can 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 the brothers and sisters, now feels cleansed. Whoever did only dead works 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 to 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 10th, found in the Gospel of Matthew: “Blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” 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 doubts, uncertainties, and 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 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 s/he does not understand the thought 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 as 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 in 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 that of 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.
There is a video available by Fr. Fernando Armellini with commentary for today’s Gospel: http://www.bibleclaret.org/videos