Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near.
Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then 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,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Questioning the work of God is something natural. The eternal and all-powerful God of the universe would not be working to their full extent if we could understand everything that comes our way. In the same way that a single chapter, removed from the context of an entire book, is hard to enjoy or understand the work of God is not always evident to us from our small view into it. While faith believes that the rest of the work is good and intelligible, our reason and our situations bring us to our questions.
In our Gospel, we see the way that John, the forerunner of Jesus’ ministry, reacted when he saw Jesus’ ministry. We remember that John proclaimed a message that the coming Messiah was to be a mighty person who would pour the Holy Spirit of God’s prophetic power on the world and send down fire to cleanse the world of all unrighteousness. John expected the coming of Christ to mean a quick and speedy resolution to the problems of the Jewish people. True faith would break out across the world, Rome would burn into dust, and the Messianic King would rule the people in righteousness and power for all eternity.
John was imprisoned before Jesus’ ministry really took off. He had been sent there because he refused to accept the work of Herod. This Herod was the son of Herod the Great, the ruler who had sought the death of Jesus following his birth. He was, for a time, considered for the title of King of the Jews, but lost out to his older brother. Though the scripture and he himself used the term, “King,” he was, in reality, a governor of two small provinces.
Herod was not as ruthless as his father but was just as politically minded. He has built fishing complexes all along the Galilee in an attempt to show himself fiscally minded and administratively savvy. These cities were designed to bring money into his coffers, to feed the Roman army, and to monopolize food production in the area. As one might expect, this put small fishermen out. They could either work for Herod as fishing serfs or keep their businesses for diminishing returns. Herod was not popular with the peasantry for many reasons, but his economic abuse of them was one of the chief ones.
When the Tetrarch found that his brother had died and his sister-in-law was no longer taken he divorced his own wife and married her. Herodias was brought in and his first wife Phasaelis was forced out to return to her family. Herod had added to his real estate mogul persona a penchant for womanizing. The ruler had established himself as a king who was capable of taking land, of destroying marriages, and of doing anything to take power.
It is not a surprise then that John the Baptist opposed Herod for his work. The prophet acted as a Nathan to Herod’s David. The Tetrarch trusted John to a degree, we are told in places he enjoyed John’s message of God’s coming deliverance. Yet despite this Herod decided John was too dangerous to let roam freely. He jailed John for his criticisms of the Herodian government. John sat in prison for opposing the injustices of his day.
While in prison John could only dream of the work that Jesus was doing. How his cousin whom he had baptized on the River Jordan was beginning his mission against the power structures of their day. Gathering the faithful people of Israel together and proclaiming the end of Rome and all its sympathizers. The divine army of God must be just around the corner, ready to start a new thing on Earth. John, sitting in his prison cell would have pictured all his messianic hopes coming true.
So, now… When John gets reports of what Jesus is doing… What confusion and disappointment must he have felt? “You’re telling me!” John says, “That he has been preaching and teaching about how to live together in harmony? He is instructing people on how to suffer? I thought he was coming to bring us out of suffering! He going around healing the sick and liberating the poor and oppressed? If he wanted to make their life better he would just get rid of Rome. He would kill them all and let God sort out the rest! Why won’t he just act like one!”
John sends those who told him about Jesus’ ministry back to Jesus and tells them to ask if Jesus really is the Messiah or if John was mistaken in thinking he was. The messengers meet with Jesus and ask him the question, asks him if he really is the Messiah. Jesus’ answer fills out what John’s expectations of Jesus had missed. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Jesus makes it clear that the coming of God’s kingdom was not in fire and in death but in the renewal of life. The healing of people who were sick. The freeing of people from systematic oppression. The removal of any obstacle between them and God. Jesus also reminds John, if you really believe in the coming of God’s kingdom, the fact is has broken out will not be an offensive thing to you. You will not be upset about how God has brought about the kingdom, even if it is not what you thought it would be. You have to have faith even as you question.
With the messenger returning to John, Jesus looks back to a crowd that has already probably started whispering among themselves. “Can you believe John?” “How could he question Jesus like that?” “He should be so ashamed!” “A faithful person would not doubt God like this…”
Jesus does not tolerate this attack on John. He reminds the people what John did. “Remember who you came to see in the Wilderness! How he washed you for your sins and did not hold anything back! Remember how he gave up his comfort to seek God, gave up respectability for holiness! Yet you would doubt him for having questions?”
The shame the crowd was ready to place on John was redirected to them. The reality is that even the holiest among us those of whom it could be said, “No greater person was born of woman,” than them, will have doubts. They will question God and God’s work in the world. Why wouldn’t they? When the bills aren’t paid, when the diagnosis is bad, when the world ain’t fair, you should question things because suffering is never something we should just accept. The job of a prophet is to push beyond questions and to provide an alternative vision of the future.
John, now reoriented toward how God sought to bring about the kingdom, could rest in his cell. God was breaking out a new and radical vision for the future. The poor would be taken care of. The rich would meet their needs. Those kept from seeking their livelihood would have obstacles taken away from them. The doors to the Kingdom would be opened to all people, to gentile and Jew, rich and poor, worthy and unworthy, and all people would have a great deal asked of them.
But if we wish to step into our prophetic role in that Kingdom, to follow the example of our prophet’s as James would have us do, then we must be willing to accept our questions as they come. We must also be willing to follow the example of John in our willingness to oppose the evils of the world. We must speak out against every Herod we meet, we must do so even if it means we lose the privileges of the world we are born into. With John as our example, and Christ as our aim, we can never be discouraged from our mission in the Kingdom. We wait, we question, but among all these things we must act. – Amen.