For who are you looking: context

jesus-christ-from-hagia-sophiaThe Third Sunday in Advent. Matthew 11:2-11. 2 When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him 3 with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” 4 Jesus said to them in reply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” 7 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? 8 Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. 9 Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 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.’ 11 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.

Context. The “works of the Christ” (Mt 11:2), which have been set out in chapters 5–10, provoked different responses from different groups. These responses, most of which consist of misunderstanding if not outright rejection, are examined in chapters 11–12, and explained in the parables of chapter 13. Further examples of the response to Jesus will occur in chapters 14–16, until the true response is found in Peter’s confession in 16:13–20, which will bring the second main part of Matthew’s Gospel to its climax. This is the thread which runs through these chapters. Through them we are led from a view of Jesus as others saw him to the true confession of him as Messiah which eluded most of his contemporaries, conditioned as they were by erroneous or inadequate ideas of the Messiah.

More immediately, this passage marks a transition. “When Jesus finished giving these commands to his twelve disciples, he went away from that place to teach and to preach in their towns” (Mt 11:1).  With this one verse, Matthew signals the end of the missionary discourse (Mt 10) in 11:1 with nothing said about the disciples’ actual mission or their return (as in Luke 9). The spotlight remains on Jesus as he continues his work. The themes of unbelief and rejection that were so prominent in the missionary discourse are continued, but we are given more information about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah (11:1–6), the Wisdom of God (11:25–30), and the Servant of God (12:15–21).

This passage also has a liturgical context in its use as the Gospel of the 3rd Sunday in Advent, Gaudete Sunday. On the 2nd Sunday of Advent, our Gospel reading presented the preaching of John the Baptist. Near the end of this reading, Matthew portrays John, not only as a prophet, but as a forerunner to Jesus. John is quoted as speaking about “the one who is coming after me,” who “is mightier than I” (3:11), which makes this selection especially appropriate for Advent.  On the 3rd Sunday of Advent this year, we read the episode in which John, already in prison, sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (11:3). Jesus does not respond directly, but simply points out that he is doing the things Isaiah mentions in describing a time when people will experience God’s glory and splendor, restoration and salvation (alluding to Isa 35:1-6, this Sunday’s first reading). It is this accent, in anticipation of its joyous fulfillment that gives Gaudete Sunday its focus.

In either its scriptural or liturgical focus, a key point is that if both prophet and Messiah have appeared, then their joint call to repentance (recall 3:2; 4:17) must be urgently heeded – be it John’s message unremittingly austere or Jesus also preaching the joy of the kingdom (11:16–19).

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