THE MESSENGERS FROM JOHN THE BAPTIST
THE PRECURSOR'S HOLY IMPATIENCE THE MEANING OF THE QUESTION ASKED OF JESUS THE SAVIOUR'S INDIRECT BUT CLEAR, POSITIVE RESPONSE THE WORKS PROVE THE MESSIAH PANEGYRIC OF JOHN HIS CONSTANCY, HIS AUSTERITY, HIS EXCEPTIONAL DIGNITY - THE KINGDOM OF GOD IS OPENED THE VIOLENT BEAR IT AWAY FICKLE CHILDREN ARE CUT OFF FROM IT - THE SONS OF WISDOM. (St. Luke vii, 1835; St. Matt. ix, 219.)
THE fame of these wonders penetrated even into the dungeons of Machærus, and a man there trembled with joy because of them. It was John, the Precursor, whose ardent and deeply religious soul intensely longed for the solemn and triumphant inauguration of the Messianic Kingdom.1 We may understand and even praise in the great servants of God that holy impatience which, inspired by supernatural views, has nothing in common with reprehensible selfseeking. For John expected from Jesus neither his own deliverance nor the punishment of his persecutors, but simply the glory of God; and all that he learned of the young Prophet's miracles and of the popular enthusiasm He was arousing, led him to believe that the decisive hour had struck.
His disciples shared his opinions, yet not without a certain distrust and doubt to which he himself, in his strong faith, was ever a stranger. By their contact with the Pharisees, they must have lost much of the hope which, on their Master's testimony, they had founded in Jesus. The young Nazarene, notwithstanding His miracles, seemed to them to fulfill less and less the plan of action outlined for a long time back by their national prejudices. Their doubts troubled the Baptist's heart and redoubled his impatience to see "the Lamb of God," Who had been proclaimed Messiah many months before by the voice of the Father, carry out the divine mandate to its full realization. The time for supreme resolution seemed to him to be at hand; he thought it opportune, as well for the strengthening of his disciples' faith, as for determining Jesus openly to declare Himself the Christ, to send to Him two messengers with this interrogation: "Art thou he that is to come, or look we for another?" It cannot be denied that the circumstances were happily chosen for the removing of all appearance of doubt from this question: it arose because of the great miracles of Jesus; if it is bold and piously familiar in its form, this is because the Baptist's character could not otherwise express it. He who sends these messengers is certain of Jesus' mission, aware of his own part with regard to the Messiah, and convinced of the necessity of acting without delay. On the eve of being put to death, he desires to continue to the end his office of Precursor, by hastening the coming of the kingdom of God. He rightly phrases his question in the manner most suited to induce Jesus to declare Himself and put an end to the uncertainty of many.
At the moment when the messengers came on the scene, Jesus was engaged in curing a number of sick.
When He had listened with manifest kindliness to the question they brought Him, He pointed, with a gesture more eloquent than any words, to the sick who had been cured by His command only, or by His touch. Then He meekly made answer: "Go and relate to John what you have heard and seen. The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead rise again, to the poor the gospel is preached." To be sure, this reply was only indirect, yet it was thoroughly categoric, for it contained the affirmation of the Messianic character of Jesus, and the proof of this affirmation. If Jesus realizes all the works that the prophets ascribed to the Messiah, it is because He is the Messiah.
Isaias had said:2 "Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped"; and Jesus has effected these wonders. "Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall be free." And all this, too, has been accomplished by Jesus. Ezechiel3 had announced that the Messiah would purify His people and resurrect the dead; Jesus has done this. And, in fine, as a characteristic trait, the Messiah "was sent to preach to the meek,4 and Jesus gives His life to this work. It is needless, then, to ask for further light; it remains for each one to see and to conclude that the Kingdom of God is come with its train of beneficent wonders, and that, for the present, no realization, other than this spiritual realization of it, is to be expected. Later on it will be established in its definitive and triumphant form by the great Day of Judgment. It would be an error of perspective to confuse the spiritual regeneration of the world with the eternal consecration of the elect in glory.
Then, with a special emphasis in His words, He added: "And blessed is he that shall not be scandalized in me." This is not in response to John's message, which He is soon to praise with such satisfaction. We must see in this an allusion to the state of uncertainty and distrust in which they are who come to question Him. Let them be careful that they may not strike against the stone of which the prophet5 speaks, and which is the Messiah, for otherwise they would surely fall and perish miserably.
As for the Baptist, Jesus will speak His thoughts of him, but only after the departure of his messengers, that He may not seem a flatterer with regard to him. Nothing could be more glorious for the Precursor than this eulogy, or, better, this funeral oration, for his death was not far distant: "What went you out into the desert to see?" exclaimed the Savior, "a reed shaken by the wind? But what went you out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? But what went you out to see? A prophet? Yea, I tell you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written:6 Behold I send my angel before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee." Such was the justice Jesus did to the constancy of John's character, to the austerity of his life, and to his, worthiness of the divine command. The reed shaken by the wind is the figure of a wavering, inconstant soul, which bends before every breeze, and shifts its strongest convictions7 to suit circumstances. This is not what the multitudes went out to see. Standing amid the reeds of the Jordan, John the Baptist was the oak unbent by any storm. The saintly severity of his soul, the strength of his convictions, the vehemence of his words, won for him the admiration of all. He braved Herod himself. A reed would have bowed its head. John prefers to offer his to be cut off. Such in great part was the result of the austere life which he led from his earliest childhood. He scorns death because he never has loved life. In his dungeon he is fully as formidable as when he was free; for, accustomed to voluntary sufferings, he fears nothing, if it be not failure to do his duty. Hence it is that not only does he bid Herod put an end to his scandalous life, but he desires to persuade Jesus Himself to proclaim His character as Messiah. He meets every need full in the face. If the herald that goes before the Messiah must needs be stern as justice and brave as truth, John is worthy of a mission which Jesus rightly places even above that of the prophets themselves. For he who is foretold, is greater than they whose charge it is to foretell him. The prophets did the foretelling, but John was foretold. This is his glory.
"Amen, I say to you," Jesus continues, "there hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist." Then, as if seized by a thought that He wishes to communicate to His bearers, He checks Himself, and adds: "Yet he that is the lesser in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he." The Savior here speaks not of virtue but of dignity. From this point of view, though John surpasses those of the old alliance, he, in turn, is surpassed by those of the new. The first in the Old Testament is the last in the New, so profound is the chasm that separates these two orders of things. John's knowledge of the great questions of the supernatural life is inferior to that of the humblest member of the Christian society, and while with relation to Jesus the latter shall be a brother, the former has been but a servant. The one shall live under the law of grace and, as it were, shall be unconsciously penetrated with it; the other has lived under the law of justice and shall find mercy only in the name of the Savior, Whose coming he announces; for, it must not be forgotten, the Precursor, dying beneath the sword of Herod, shall not immediately enter heaven. For him, as for all the Saints of the Old Law, Jesus must open the door of the Kingdom of Glory, otherwise all would remain in exile.
This peculiar position that John occupies, between the two Testaments, accounts for his inferiority as regards the future, and his superiority in relation to the past. He has not had the joy of entering the promised land, but he has the honor of having guided his people to its confines.
"And," continues Jesus, "from the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And, if you will receive it, he is the Elias that is to come." Thus announcing the close of the theocratic era and the official opening of the Messianic era, He declares that man must think no more of the past unless it be to hail its fulfillment in the present, and that now the true Israelites have only to enter freely into the Kingdom of God. "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear!" says Jesus, as if to point out the decisive importance of his final words.
He goes on: "And all the people hearing, and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with John's baptism. But the Pharisees and the lawyers despised the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized by him." The lower orders had eagerly responded to the sign God gave them, while the heads of the nation, blind in their pride, held aloof from the religious movement that was agitating Israel. 'Twas a strange phenomenon! They had at all times formed some pretense for their discontent: heaven's messengers were not pleasing to them; their doctrines were either too severe or too easy. "Wherewith shall I liken the men of this generation? And to what are they like? They are like children sitting in the marketplace, and speaking one to another, and saying: We have piped and you have not danced; we have mourned and you have not wept. For John the Baptist came neither eating bread, nor drinking wine, and you say, he hath a devil. The Son of Man is come eating and drinking, and you say: Behold a man, that is a glutton and a drinker of wine, a friend of publicans and sinners!" Such is their response to all of heaven's advances.
It was God's thought to incite His people to a twofold movement of repentance with John the Baptist, and of holy joy with Jesus Christ. Both emissaries have come in the midst of their adherents, and have invited the Jews, sitting in idleness, to rise up and follow; but they remained unmoved by any solicitation; John was too severe, Jesus too indulgent. Like the capricious children whom He had so many times seen playing, and with whom He Himself had played at Nazareth, the Savior declares that the children of Israel waste their time in contradictions, and succeed only in proving themselves all malcontents. In the meantime those men of energy, the violent already spoken of, march on with vigor, at the summons they have heard, and carry the Kingdom of God by storm, These are men, the others merely children. Happily, as the Savior concludes, "Wisdom is justified by all her children." For there are some who do not deem John too severe, nor Jesus too gentle; to those it has seemed that austerity and mercy ought both to find a place in the work of justification, and they are ready to weep and to rejoice in turn. In this way have they entered into God's kingdom, and, by their virtue proving the wisdom of the divine plan, they have become worthy of assisting in its fulfillment by the sublime functions of the apostolate.
1 It is wrong to ascribe this message of John to Jesus as a doubt which at the last moment troubled the Baptist's soul. It is true, we can see how some men in the solitude of a dungeon, embittered by suffering and weary of the struggle, may feel their courage failing them and their convictions being shaken. But in this case the moral probation of the Precursor's soul cannot be understood. He cannot forget what he has seen and heard. The men, quoted as examples of discouragement, doubt not what they have seen but what they have thought. Moreover, we cannot comprehend how John was inclined to doubt, because he heard of the miracles of Jesus. Naturally he would be impatient to see these miracles bear their fruits.
2 Isa. xxxv, 5.
3 Ezech. xxxvi and xxxvii.
4 Isa. lxi, 1.
5 Isa. viii, 14.
6 Malach. iii, 1. The quotation is not exact either according to the Hebrew or according to the Septuagint; and yet it is found in identical terms in St. Luke vii, 27, in St. Matt. xi, 10, and in St. Mark i, 2. St. Mark puts it in another context, attributing it to Isaias, probably because he continues it with a passage from that prophet.
7 Ephes. iv, 14; Heb. xiii, 9.
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