The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to them,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.
Be patient, brothers and sisters,
until the coming of the Lord.
See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth,
being patient with it
until it receives the early and the late rains.
You too must be patient.
Make your hearts firm,
because the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Do not complain, brothers and sisters, about one another,
that you may not be judged.
Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates.
Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters,
the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ,
he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question,
“Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?”
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
As they were going off,
Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John,
“What did you go out to the desert to see?
A reed swayed by the wind?
Then what did you go out to see?
Someone dressed in fine clothing?
Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.
Then why 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:
Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you;
he will prepare your way before you.
Amen, I say to you,
among those born of women
there has been none greater than John the Baptist;
yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
Years ago one of my high school religion classes gave me a unique Christmas gift: a banner depicting Santa Claus with a question under his picture, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?” It’s the same question the disciples of John the Baptizer ask Jesus in today’s gospel pericope.
Jesus’ response springs from our Isaiah passage. When Yahweh comes to save the people, “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing.” Matthew’s Jesus adds something about lepers being cleansed and the dead raised, but the idea is the same. Though he’s the one John’s been looking forward to, he’s not the Messiah people had been expecting. He’s a different Messiah, someone who announces good news that takes the spotlight off himself and shines it on the people.
Most 1st century CE Israelites presumed when this special anointed individual finally arrived their only problem would be finding a good seat from which to watch the show. He’d take care of everything. That appears to be one of the reasons Matthew adds Jesus’ remark that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than even the prophet John.
In this context the “kingdom of heaven” is Jesus’ way of referring to God acting effectively in this world. In other words, those who notice God working in the here and now of their everyday lives are the most important people on the face of the earth. They actually help the blind see and the lame run. They do what’s necessary to change our planet’s status quo.
Of course, the main characteristic such people must possess is patience. Though we’re confident God’s going to help us change “things,” our hands are still feeble, our knees weak, and our hearts frightened. Perhaps James is right in saying farmers make good Christians. They, of all people, must constantly wait for things to happen. Rarely does any of their work bring instant results. Only someone who has faith in the future will plant seeds.
It’s significant that in our gospel passage Jesus speaks about the Baptizer as a prophet. Against popular wisdom, a biblical prophet usually doesn’t go around predicting the future. As Bruce Vawter always insisted, a prophet is the conscience of the people, a person who tells us what God wants us to do in our everyday lives.
But how do we tell real prophets from fake prophets? Religious leaders constantly try to convince their people that they alone speak for God. Among the rules for distinguishing realies from fakes, we know a real prophet can never profit from prophesying. Who would pay someone for telling them what they don’t want to hear? Real prophets never wear fine clothes or live in royal palaces. On the contrary, like John, they’re rarely welcome among the good folk. Often we have to leave our safe religious institutions and go out into “the wilderness” to even encounter them.
I once asked Carrol Stuhlmueller who he thought the prophets were in our day and age. He named the usual suspects: Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, even Ralph Nader. But then he smiled and said, “I have my own personal list that I’m not going to share even with you. If that list ever got out, I’d never again be permitted in the pulpit of any Catholic church in the world.”
Since Jesus’ historical disciples regarded him as a prophet long before they thought of him as God, it makes me wonder just who we should be expecting this Christmas.