Isaiah 35:1-6, 10, James 5:7-10, Matthew 11:2-11
On the Gospel, Blessed Is Anyone Who Takes No Offense at Me
Have you ever seen someone take offense at the Lord? I have. A certain lady who spent her time working for the Lord — visiting the sick and the bedridden, helping the elderly and the handicapped — was diagnosed of a knee problem needing surgery. The surgery was not a success and so left her in constant pain and unable to walk. It seemed the Lord had ignored the prayers of this woman and her friends for a successful surgery. This was a woman who considered herself a personal friend of Jesus. And was she disappointed? Her otherwise cheerful disposition turned into sadness and gloom. One day she pulled herself together and shared with her confessor what was going on in her soul. The confessor suggested that she go into prayer and ask her friend Jesus why he has treated her this way. And she did. The following day the priest met her and saw peace written all over her face in spite of her pain. “Do you know what he said to me?” she began. “As I was looking at the crucified Jesus and telling him about my bad knee, he said to me, ‘Mine is worse.’”
“And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” (Matt 11:6)
Does John the Baptist in today’s gospel find himself in a similar situation? John has spent all his life in the Judean desert in anticipation of the Messiah who was to come. He has prepared the way for the Messiah by calling the people to a baptism of repentance. Now he is languishing in prison because he denounced the sins of Herod Antipas. In the meantime Jesus begins his public work as the Messiah. He doesn’t go to visit John in prison or send him a word of encouragement. John hears that he is performing miracles. Why doesn’t he use his miraculous powers to set John free and vindicate him? Doesn’t prophecy say that one of the signs of the Messiah is that he will set prisoners free? Naturally John would expect to be one of the first beneficiaries. After all, it was he who baptized Jesus in the first place. Some reciprocal benevolence would certainly be in order. So John sends messengers to Jesus to remind him. Jesus’ message back to John was, “Yes I am indeed the Messiah. But please do not take offence at me if all your expectations are not met.” Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.
What is going on here? Wrong expectations. Popular theology in biblical times held that prosperity was a sign that God was with someone and adversity a sign that God was not with them. The author of Job questioned this theology by telling the story of Job who was a man of God and yet met with adversity. But that theology has survived and is still with us today in spite of the teachings and personal example of Jesus.
In Jesus we see that the sure signs of God’s presence are not primarily material but spiritual. It is true that in the ministry of Jesus “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised” (Matt 11:5), yet these miracles can be seen as “signs” of an inner spiritual blessing. What does it profit a person ultimately to receive the use of physical eyes and feet if they continue to be spiritually blind and lame? No. The vital signs of God’s presence are spiritual — spiritual enlightenment (blind see, deaf hear) and empowerment (lame walk, dead raised). Of course these have inevitable salutary effects on the physical order, but these are secondary.
Once there was a blind man who became a preacher. He drew crowds to his preaching because, even though he was still physically blind, he would often begin his preaching by declaring, “I was blind but now I see.”
In advent we are like John waiting for the coming of the Lord. What are our expectations? Today’s gospel reminds us that we need to entertain expectations that are in accordance with the Lord’s priorities. Without discounting the physical and the material we are reminded that the primary domain of God’s saving work among us is the spiritual. Ultimately this has saving effects on the material and social order, but God’s salvation is primarily spiritual.
On the Epistle, Be Patient … Until the Coming of the Lord
An Igbo proverb says, “Starvation does not kill when one has hope to eat sooner or later.” The early Christians were a suffering people. On account of their belief in Christ, their own people, the Jews, disowned them. Because they would not worship the Roman deities, the Roman authorities accused them of heresy and treason and hunted them down, dead or alive. For the early Christians life was insecure and bereft of joy. And because they knew they were innocent, they longed for justice and vindication. Naturally, some of them would bow to social pressure and renounce the faith to save their neck. In today’s second reading, James urges them to be patient and courageous in the face of danger and suffering. The reason he gives them is: the coming of the Lord is near.
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. (James 5:7-8)
James points to nature to illustrate his point that patience is necessary. The farmer suffers in sowing the seed. The same farmer will rejoice in harvesting the crop. Between these two moments, however, there is a long period of waiting. In ancient times, the period between sowing and harvesting is also a time of famine, since food was in short supply. Yet the farmer happily suffers this famine in the hope that harvest time will soon be there and food will be plentiful again.
Now, what does it mean to be patient? To be patient is to understand that my present suffering is meaningful and necessary. It is as meaningful and necessary as the suffering of the farmer waiting for the harvest. The justification for the suffering is in the good-times that will come in the future. The glory of the Lord does not come to us on credit, have it now and pay later. It comes to us prepaid. We pay for it in advance. Now is the time to pay for it, and our present suffering is the currency. People who do not understand this go about asking themselves, “Why Me? What have I done to deserve this?” Worse still they blame someone else for their suffering. James warns his fellow Christians to avoid the blame-game, to avoid trading complaints against one another as if their present suffering was something unnecessary. Believers who indulge in the blame-game betray their lack of faith in divine providence, and so make themselves liable to judgment.
Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! (James 5:9)
James reminds such grumpy Christians that the Lord is very near, “the Judge is standing at the doors.” It is the Lord who will judge everyone, the sincere believer as well as the insincere, and give to everyone what they truly deserve. He reminds those Christians who grumble against one another as being the cause of their suffering to focus on the glory of the Lord which is coming and not on their worldly comfort and social status which is disappearing.
Is the message of James relevant to our church today? Very much so. More than ever, we have many Christians who are grumbling against one another and blaming them for the ills that have befallen the church. Conservatives blame liberals and liberals blame conservatives, heterosexuals blame homosexuals and homosexuals blame heterosexuals, traditionalists blame charismatics and charismatics blame traditionalists, feminists blame patriarchals and patriarchals blame feminists. Advent is a time to remind ourselves that the Judge is very near, at the very doors. He it is who will judge and give to everyone what they deserve. As servants of the Lord we have a natural tendency to separate the weeds from the wheat. But we must endeavour to heed the explicit injunction of the Master: “Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” (Matthew 13:30). Let both of them grow together! Shall we?