John in his prison had heard what Christ was doing and he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or have we got to wait for someone else?’ Jesus answered, ‘Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.’
As the messengers were leaving, Jesus began to talk to the people about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the breeze? No? Then what did you go out to see? A man wearing fine clothes? Oh no, those who wear fine clothes are to be found in palaces. Then what did you go out for? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and much more than a prophet: he is the one of whom scripture says:
‘Look, I am going to send my messenger before you;
he will prepare your way before you.
‘I tell you solemnly, of all the children born of women, a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is.’
Gospel reading – Courtesy of Universalis Publishing Ltd. – www.universalis.com
by Fr Juan José Bartolomé SDB
Introduction to Lectio Divine
Christmas is already near. The joy of the coming of God should fill the time between now and then. If we love the one we are waiting for, we rejoice when we know that he is coming soon. Even without his physical presence we can feel the joy of his imminent arrival. While we hope that God will come into our lives, our joy is the way to show our love for God whom we need so badly. It should not be difficult for believers to live in joy in a world where God seems to be absent, if we know that he is already on the way. Knowing that he is coming is the way to recover the joy of living. The liturgy makes it clear that joy comes from knowing that God is near. If we really wait for him, and prepare for his coming, we will regain the joy of knowing that our God is already close to us.
Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
Before Jesus began his ministry in Galilee, John the Baptist preceded him and proclaimed that his coming was imminent (Mt 3.1-11). At the end of his ministry, shortly before his cruel death (Mt 14, 1-12), the Baptist will be proclaimed by Jesus as the greatest of the prophets. Jesus did not enter history without being announced by John the Baptist and he did not allow John to bow out from history without publicly acknowledging his greatness. This is how Jesus ‘pays back’ those who proclaim him and prepare for his coming among men.
The Gospel reports the public testimony that Jesus gives regarding his predecessor. The solemn declaration of Jesus, it must be noted, is more of a forced confession than a voluntary proclamation. John the Baptist is confused by the fame of Jesus and he orders his disciples to ask Jesus if he is, in fact, the one they have been waiting for. John does not seem to be very sure of who Jesus really is. It is all a drama – the one who announced that he was coming soon could not identify him when he came! The one who knew what he was coming to do was not able to recognize him when he did it.
Jesus’ response is twofold: He answered John’s disciples without telling them who he was, but he reminded them of what he was doing. To the people, he did not speak about himself but about the Baptist, the greatest of all those born of woman. In neither case, did Jesus reveal who he was. It was not the time to do so.
Instead of a clear answer, the Baptist’s disciples receive from Jesus hints or signs so that they may come by themselves to faith. What Jesus is doing – and Matthew has already spoken of it (cf. Mt 8-9) – are the works foretold by the prophets to inaugurate the messianic era (cf. Is 29, 18-19; 35, 5-6; 61, 1). Those who do not take offence at Jesus and accept him as their saviour will be blessed and will enter his kingdom. We do not know if the Baptist was satisfied with such a subtle answer that had such dangerous consequences.
To the people present, Jesus spoke the greatest eulogy that ever came from his lips: there is no one born of woman greater than John. In the whole of the gospel, no one, not even his mother, received such high praise from Jesus! But he is not the greatest of all, because his greatness cannot be compared to that of even the least of those who are born in the Kingdom.
Even though he fulfils the expectations of men and the promises of God, Jesus does not always get recognition, even from the best. Entering into discussion about him is a sign of greatness, and those who take no offence at him are blessed. It is not enough, therefore, to be surprised by Jesus, or amazed at his way of acting. We must accept him as the Christ, who wants to be as he is. We should not expect more from him than what he wants to be for us.
Meditate: apply what the text says to life
It is not enough to announce the coming of Jesus or to know that he is near. We must be able to recognize him when he is among us. Today’s Gospel makes this very clear. John the Baptist spent his whole life waiting for the salvation of God that was imminent. He was so convinced that the Lord was about to come that he devoted himself completely to preparing for his coming. For this reason, it is tragic to hear that, at the end of his days, he did not yet know that the long-awaited God had already come in Jesus of Nazareth.
From prison, where he was sent for being faithful to the God he was waiting for, he sent disciples to ask Jesus if he was the one who was to come, or should they continue to wait. Despite his fidelity to God in whom he hoped, and the certainty that one day God would come, John was still not well enough prepared to recognize him when the time came. What was lacking in “the greatest born of woman” for him to become a believer? After his long period of waiting and his great fidelity, he was still not able to identify in Jesus the one he had been waiting for. His life of penance and his work as a preacher seem to have been of little help to him!
Something like that could happen to us, the believers of today, who have been waiting for him for a long time. Although we wait for him and desire him all through our lives, we could still miss him when he comes. Maybe, like John, we have the wrong idea of what he will be like, an idea that does not coincide with what he wants to be for us. The people had been waiting for Jesus but that was of no help because they expected him to act in a different way. Precisely because they had formed an idea of what the one who was to come should be like, many people did not recognize him when he eventually came. They were not without hope, but he was not as they had imagined. They thought they knew how the Messiah should act, and so they did not recognize him when he was among them.
Is something like this not happening to us? Because we think we know how God should be, we do not recognize him when he comes in the way he wants to be. While we are looking for him as a solution to our needs, we have moved away so far from the reality that we are no longer able to identify him, no matter how near to us he may be. It is understandable that if we are waiting for God because we feel our need of him, we come to think of God as one who makes up for our shortcomings and meets our needs. But in doing so we leave ourselves in serious risk of not meeting him, because we are looking only for the things we need. If we desire God only for what he can give us, we will not receive anything from him. Waiting for God simply because we need something is not the best way to prepare for his coming.
Even John, the greatest born of woman, felt unsure about Jesus, because what he knew of Jesus did not fit in with his expectations. It is not surprising that we also find it hard to recognize the presence of God made visible in the man Jesus, in his life and in his preaching. Only those who overcome this perplexity are able to enjoy his presence. If we allow God to be what he wants to be and in the way he wants to be, then, like Mary, we will discover how marvellous God really is. Blessed are we because God does not deceive us! We will be happy because we have no illusions about how God should be for us. God who reveals himself in Christ Jesus does not delude us.
Jesus himself was able to prove, by referring to his works, that he was the God they had been waiting for. He had come to those whose need for God was so great that they allowed God to reveal himself to them as he really is and as he wanted to be. In the days of Jesus as in ours, the needy, the poor, those who make less demands of God, are the ones who do not feel cheated by him. They allow him to come into their lives in the way he wants to come. That was the sign that Jesus gave to John the Baptist to convince him that he need not wait any longer: those who are most in need will feel satisfied by God, when He comes. For the poor or those who acknowledge that they are poor, the nearness of God is the best gift possible and is a constant surprise. They never feel let down by God and, for this reason, they are able to be happy without much effort.
If we want to live in the joy of having a God so close that he became one of us, we should not allow ourselves to be disappointed in him. We should allow him to be God in the way he wants to be for us, without thinking he should adjust to our ideas and respond to our expectations. This means that in the presence of God and before he comes, we must accept our poverty and our misery and not imagine that he is coming only to solve our problems. If we can live without feeling frustrated by God, believing that he will give us more than we need and more than we can imagine, then we are already living with joy despite our poverty and our limitations.
And if we who live hoping for God owe something to the world in which we live, it is the joy that comes from living in hope. We must show the world a selfless joy that is committed to the joy of others. We bear witness as people who cannot be happy without making those around us happy, and as people who can renounce little joys because we live waiting in hope for the greatest joy of all, the Lord Jesus. We put our hope in him, and we find our joy in the service of others that they too may live with joy. This means recognizing him among us. Anyone who creates joy in others is drawing them nearer to the same God, whether they know it or not. This is our task. We cannot effectively celebrate God’s presence in our world, if we do not live in hope. The joy of believers is not nourished by their own success, but only by the Lord.
that looking forward in faith to the feast of our Lord’s birth,
we may feel all the happiness our Saviour brings
and celebrate his coming with unfailing joy.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.