John in his prison had heard what Christ was doing and he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or have we got to wait for someone else?’ Jesus answered, ‘Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy is the man who does not lose faith in me.’
As the messengers were leaving, Jesus began to talk to the people about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swaying in the breeze? No? Then what did you go out to see? A man wearing fine clothes? Oh no, those who wear fine clothes are to be found in palaces. Then what did you go out for? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and much more than a prophet: he is the one of whom scripture says:
‘Look, I am going to send my messenger before you;
he will prepare your way before you.
‘I tell you solemnly, of all the children born of women, a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is.’
The Messiah is not behaving as expected. Vengeance and retribution are not obvious in his ministry. He is not behaving as the unrelenting executor of God’s judgement. Could the Messiah possibly be this non-violent, forgiving, forbearing man? His coming will certainly bring judgement but not the one-sided judgement that people were expecting. People love to hear of others being brought to judgement but nobody is keen on it for themselves. They want to hear the priest ‘giving out’ about the failings and faults of others.
John sends messengers to ask the definitive question, ‘Are you the Messiah?’ Maybe we can excuse his doubt or his lack of faith because he is in prison. He had taken a hard line on the king’s sinful behaviour and regal retribution had come swiftly for him. Herod’s capacity for swift and brutal vengeance was soon to follow. These kind of earthly kings have no truck with weaknesses like forgiveness and patience. Like John we may sometimes wonder at the presence or absence of God in the face of earthly evils and provocations.
John expected answers and all he got was a counter question. His messengers and the followers of Christ after them want ready-made solutions and they are challenged to formulate their own. People seek miracles and are taught about the slow process of sowing, germination, growth and harvest. John is told to observe the fruits, the harvest, the priorities of Christ’s ministry and to decide for himself.
The way of Christ is invariably one of challenge; to choose how we live and love. We are to see the face of God and the ways of God in the countenance of this quiet persistent preacher. His priority for the poor and the sick rather than for the mighty reflects the compassion and the understanding of God. To follow him is to have faith in who he is and to risk all earthly reward in the search for eternal life. To follow him is to seek to renew the face of the earth, to build up the kingdom of peace and justice, to die to self so as to find life in abundance. Christ reminds his hearers that the least in his kingdom is greater even than John the Baptist.
The people had many thoughts and theories about the Messiah. Many thought that the Messiah would be primarily a man of power and might. He was, but this was subordinated to the quest for justice and the practice of perfect love. What God wishes to accomplish in the world, God first accomplishes in one person. In the, at first unlikely figure of Christ is the Messiah and the model for all of our conduct and for all of life. Happy those who heed the call of today’s scripture to fear not; to have courage, patience and faith. Everlasting joy will be on their faces/ joy and gladness will go with them/ sorrow and lament will be ended.