An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Advent, Year A
December 12, 2010
What can transform our present world that is rife with suffering and evil into a paradise of love, justice and peace? Time was when many people, given the evils attendant upon Industrial Revolution, thought that Socialism and Communism would usher in a new paradise, the classless society, with the Proletariat as the Messiah; but in the end, the paradise turned out to be the Gulag archipelago. Karl Marx’s Communism was obviously a disappointment. That was why others were hoping for the destruction of the USSR, believing that the fall of the “evil” empire would usher in world peace. Today, however, the Russian empire has disintegrated, and Communism and Socialism have been defanged, but the world has not substantially changed for the better. We are still faced with the prospect of nuclear exchange, and we have problems of hunger and poverty, the exploitation of the poor by the rich, the foolish wars and the rape of the environment. Many people and probably some countries looked to terrorists and their network for salvation, but if the fallout of their attacks is any evidence, it would seem that the world has gotten no better off than before.
Which brings us to the question: given the persistence of evil experiences, who is to free us from them and offer us a new life and a new world? Of course, to those who belong to the Christian Churches and civilization, faith teaches that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, i.e., God’s anointed One who brought salvation to the world through his entire life, but especially through his passion, death and resurrection. We, Christians, identify him with “the one who is to come” (Matt 11:3)—he is the one we long for to save this world from all forms of evil. This belief in Jesus’ Messiahship is already expressed in the early post-Easter reflection, where he is recognized as the Davidic Messiah who is enthroned at the resurrection: “God made both Lord and Messiah this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:34).
But whether all of us act on that belief, that is to say, whether our belief in his Messiahship is seen in the way we live our day-to-day lives, is another question. For, one simply wonders whether the name of Jesus the Messiah is invoked in our efforts to establish peace and justice, whether his teachings matter whenever we try to resolve problems of hunger, war, poverty, and the destruction of the environment, and whether the way we do politics and economy is informed by what the Messiah has to say. Indeed, if the war against terrorism is any indication, it would seem that many Christians—or at least those who hold power in governments—look to other Messiahs. Like High-Tech Military Power.
We raise this point because it seems that many of us do not exactly understand the role of Jesus in the realization of salvation. We seem to think like John the Baptist who had his own notion of the Messiah and asked in this Sunday’s Gospel (Matt 11:2-11) whether Jesus fit his conception. In the Gospel of Matthew, John described the coming of the Messiah in terms of clearing the threshing floor, gathering the grain into the barns and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matt 3:10), that is to say, in terms of God’s anger and His judgment (Jer 7:20). The Messiah, as John the Baptist saw him, would be a stringent judge. But when Jesus arrived on the scene, he proved to be a disappointment to John the Baptist. Instead of eliminating transgressors from the face of the earth, for example, Jesus welcomed tax collectors and sinners (Matt 9:10-13; cf Luke 15:1-2). He engaged in a healing ministry (Matt 11:5; Isa 35:5-6). While John looked for judgment pronounced on evildoers, Jesus pronounced the endless love and mercy of God the Father (Luke ch 15).
Jesus, in other words, did not match John’s preconception. Not surprisingly enough, in today’s Gospel, John sent deputation to inquire as to Jesus’ Messiahship: “Are you ‘He who is to come’ or do we look for another?” (Matt 11:3). Indeed, there seems to be a John the Baptist in each of us. In the face of the enormous problems we are confronted with, we look not to Jesus but to politicians, Rambos, foreigner mercenaries, terrorists, and even magic and sorcery to solve them! To deliver us from political and economic evil, we run to politicians, economists and technocrats, even if experience has shown that the country has never substantially improved with the solutions they have offered us in many years—the poor keep on multiplying, the powerful still control the economy, real service is still undelivered in the way it should, the rich become all the more rich.
Why is this so? Why do we not look to Christ, if we indeed believe that he is the Messiah? The reason is that, like John the Baptist, we seem not to believe that Jesus’ way is the correct way. We lack faith that in Jesus we have the ultimate answer to the problem of salvation. We think that Jesus’ words lack wisdom, and his teaching will not work. Probably at the back of our minds, we believe that he is “an obstacle and a stumbling block,” even if we profess with our lips the opposite. We are practically disbelievers in God’s word (1 Pet 2:8). A Christian will always condemn terrorism, but it will be difficult for him to find any Christian basis for an almost relentless bombing on a poor country, where millions who are poor live, even if it is an enemy. That might be a reasonable, sensible action, politically correct, but one doubts whether it could be considered Christian. The main problem, in other words, is that we lack faith. To conquer the enemy, one has to forgive, if one goes by the Gospel, but who would believe that? If one slaps your right cheek, give him the left as well—is that reasonable?
Hence, in today’s Gospel, Jesus says: “Blest is the man who finds no stumbling block in me’ (Matt 11:6). To believe that Jesus’ way is the right way calls for a leap of faith. It is a faith that allows God to do what he wants; we do not dictate how God should act in us, even though this is what we would like to happen. On the contrary, all we do is just listen to him, as the experience of Israel proves, when the Lord saved his people from the Egyptians at the crossing of the Red Sea (Exod 14:14). This means that before anything else, we must believe, and then we can be sure that our hope will not be disappointed: “Behold, I am placing in Zion a stone to make men stumble and a rock to make them fall; but he who believes in him will not be disappointed” (Rom 9:33).