Advent 2

“Who Were We Expecting?” Bob Ryder

READING
Lk 7:18-23  (excerpts) John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ When they found Jesus, they inquired of him as John has instructed. And Jesus answered, ‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’

REFLECTION
To understand this passage, we need some context.  In the chapters before this exchange between John’s disciples and Jesus, Jesus has been busy – teaching, gathering disciples of his own, healing the sick and raising the dead.  Some of the most iconic scenes from the gospels occur in the pages leading up to this moment.  If you were to read the gospel in one sitting, as one might read a novella, still fresh in your mind would be the passages in which Jesus taught about using new wineskins for new wine, in which he taught about the Sabbath existing for the well-being of people and not the other way around, in which he healed a paralyzed man who was lowered to him through a hole his friends had cut in the roof to bypass the crowd.  As we arrive at this episode, Jesus has recently taught about the importance of loving one’s enemies, about the dangers of judging others, and about the perils of hypocrisy, about practicing charity and piety privately.  Jesus has healed a man with a withered hand.  He’s cured the centurion’s servant.  He’s raised the widow’s dead son.  He’s called his own disciples to follow him and taught them to emulate his example – they themselves preaching, healing, and serving others in need.

It is with that recent ministry resume in mind that we need to consider John’s question.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait another?”  Obviously, the question reveals John’s assessment – Jesus is not the messiah John had in mind.  His public example of compassion, humility, generosity, and integrity leave John disappointed and perplexed.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Why would John, or anyone, possibly take exception to Jesus?

Before we judge him too harshly, we need to understand that John’s ministry was every bit as political as it was religious.  His interest in moral purity wasn’t merely for its own sake.  Almost certainly his goal in frightening people to repent from their sins and baptizing them in the Jordan River was to restore Israel to a condition of moral righteousness sufficient to initiate God’s wrath on the Roman occupation.  John’s intention was to summon a violent and decisive overthrow of Herod, the Emperor, and all of Rome’s military, evicting them from the land and establishing Israel as a sovereign nation subject to no one except their God.  No doubt he imagined a victory similar to God’s destruction of the Egyptians from the story of Exodus, in which Israel’s oppressors were suddenly drowned in the sea, never to trouble the Hebrews again.

So John’s question, while not tactful, is at least understandable.  Nothing that has happened so far in Jesus’ public ministry gives any hope that Rome is about to be expelled or that the people will soon be free to live in prosperity and peace.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  We could interpret the question in a couple of ways.  One way would be to take it at face value; as a legitimate request for information.  Maybe John really didn’t know what to think.  Perhaps he was hoping for a reply something like, “Yes, I AM the one you’ve been waiting for.  It may not look like it yet, but be patient.  Before long, I’ll be calling down an army of angels and Israel will fall in behind me to destroy the Romans.  You won’t be disappointed.”  We can imagine John hoping that would be the reply his disciples would bring back.  On the other hand, we could take John’s question as rhetorical, even sarcastic.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Maybe the message was meant to goad Jesus into action.  “You’re not acting much like a messiah – get to work!  Stop wasting time and call down the thunder already.”

I wonder how likely it is this exchange really took place.  John the Baptist was certainly an historical figure.  He and Jesus surely knew of each other.  It’s plausible that Jesus was baptized by John and was one of his disciples early in his adult life.  Evidence suggests John actually was imprisoned and executed be the Roman governor, although probably for sedition rather than for criticizing the governor’s marriage, as the Gospel of Matthew has it.  So the exchange is plausible enough for us to infer that the way Jesus conducted his ministry was not at all in accordance with popular expectations of how the messiah would behave.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?  Because so far, Jesus, you don’t measure up.”

For the sake of the lesson, let’s assume the conversation really did take place something like Luke describes it.  Jesus hears the question from John’s followers and replies, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  How would John have taken that reply?  It would not have been a very satisfying response, would it?  We can’t be expected to assume John would have heard the answer and said, “Oh, a healer and a teacher, the Messiah is, eh?  I get it now.  Ministering to the sick and preaching good new to the poor – that’s what God is up to.  Now it makes sense.  Well, thank you boys, I’m glad to have that cleared up.  It seems I’m going to have to change the way I look at things!”  Human nature being as it is, there’s no way John would have taken such a response well.  I imagine John’s followers coming back arguing among themselves about who was going to give him the message.  “Hey, Ezekiel, when we get in there, you tell him what Jesus said, okay?”  “I’m not telling him – YOU tell him, Yitzhak. ‘Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.’  See how blessed John feels to hear that!  No, nothing doing.  Mordechai, you’re the youngest – you tell him.”

Well however factual or fictional, maybe the story is meant in part to make us see there’s a little bit of John the Baptist in each of us – at least insofar as we’re inclined to fight fire with fire.  How would we have responded to Jesus’s ministry had we been alive at the time?  Would we have been satisfied to think that God’s answer to our oppression was to send a healer?  Would we have been drawn to someone who exemplifies proactive reconciliation?  Would we have accepted the leadership of someone who modeled moral integrity and self-discipline – not as weapons with which to shame political adversaries – but as the primary tools for navigating a world dominated by the powerful and corrupt?  The passage feels especially poignant just now, coming to us as our society is more at odds with itself than it has been in decades.  “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  How might Jesus response inform us?  “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  How easy would we find it to set aside our disdain for those with whom we disagree politically and practice disciplined generosity and compassion as our way of life?

Now I don’t want to be naïve.  I don’t presume that a grassroots movement of kindness and integrity would, by itself, move human civilization to a pattern of political and economic justice.  We need just laws and equitable trade deals, and we need assertive, well-equipped women and men and government institutions to enforce them.  I certainly don’t presume that repenting from our sins, practicing charity and modeling integrity by itself will bring about an end to corruption and domination.  But I am persuaded that our propensity for contempt and vengeance contributes more to the problems facing our world than it does to solve them.  So as we progress deeper into this season of advent, and as we consider the aspect of our faith built on anticipation, on “not yet,” on “what might be possible,” we need to let this conversation feed our imagination and self-image.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  “Tell John what you’ve seen and heard.  The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.  Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  Amen.