Thursday, December 10, 2009

You, My Child, Shall Be Called The Prophet Of The Most High; For You Will Go Before The LORD To Prepare His Way.

First Reading          Isaiah 41:13-20

I am the LORD, your God,
who grasp your right hand;
It is I who say to you, “Fear not,
I will help you.”

Fear not, O worm Jacob,
O maggot Israel;
I will help you, says the LORD;
your redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.

I will make of you a threshing sledge,
sharp, new, and double-edged,
To thresh the mountains and crush them,
to make the hills like chaff.
When you winnow them, the wind shall carry them off
and the storm shall scatter them.
But you shall rejoice in the LORD,
and glory in the Holy One of Israel.
The afflicted and the needy seek water in vain,
their tongues are parched with thirst.
I, the LORD, will answer them;
I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.
I will open up rivers on the bare heights,
and fountains in the broad valleys;
I will turn the desert into a marshland,
and the dry ground into springs of water.
I will plant in the desert the cedar,
acacia, myrtle, and olive;
I will set in the wasteland the cypress,
together with the plane tree and the pine,
That all may see and know,
observe and understand,
That the hand of the LORD has done this,
the Holy One of Israel has created it.

Gospel                     Matthew 11:11-15

Jesus said to the crowds:
“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.
From the days of John the Baptist until now,
the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence,
and the violent are taking it by force.
All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John.
And if you are willing to accept it,
he is Elijah, the one who is to come.
Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

+++ +++ +++ +++

Isaiah’s words to the people of Israel today are a message of encouragement. God is coming to redeem his people from their exile in Babylon. The theme of today’s reading is the God will protect Israel against her enemies. The days are coming when the empire of Babylon will be no more, but God’s people will continue to abide under his loving protection.

“Fear not, O worm Jacob, O maggot Israel. I will help you.” Israel seems so insignificant against her powerful conquerors. But her weakness is deceptive: Almighty strength is on her side. Isaiah tells the people the God, “the Holy One of Israel” is their redeemer. The Hebrew word originally referred to a close male relative who will avenge the blood of a murder victim. He is the defender of the defenseless. The word “redeemer” derives from the Latin “redemptor” which means, “someone who buys back”. Now, in reading the Scriptures, it refers to God as the protector of the oppressed who liberates his people. The word was often used in this sense in Second Isaiah. It was later applied to Jesus, who is the Redeemer and Liberator of us all.

God tells his people, “I will make of you a threshing sledge, sharp, new and double-edged”. Just as the Persian Emperor Cyrus reduced his enemies to dust (Isaish 41:2), so too Israel will deal with its enemies. They will “thresh the mountains and crush them”, namely their once-powerful enemies. In fact, Cyrus, who crushed the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, is seen as an instrument of God’s work. Through all these manifestations, the writer foresees the coming of the Messianic age, “so that all may see and know, observe and understand that the hand of the LORD has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus has words of high praise for John the Baptist. John had a unique role which sets him apart from other prophets: it was he who would announce the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah. He is the last in the line of Old Testament prophets, who spoke in God’s name, pointing the way for God’s people, at times denouncing their behavior and at others pointing to a great destiny ahead. John is an Old Testament figure, but he forms a sort of bridge between Old and New. He was not a disciple of Jesus, although at least two of his disciples, Andrew and John, became the first disciples of Jesus. John was beheaded before the mission of Jesus was completed.

This is why Jesus says, “the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.” John could not share in the fullness of life that was released through the death and resurrection of Jesus, as every believing Christian can do. At this point, there are puzzling words: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force.” The meaning is not immediately clear, but it seems to refer to those who use violence to prevent people from entering the Kingdom, and to pull away those who have already entered. In the gospel of Matthew, this could apply to those Jews and others who were bitterly opposed to Jesus and his message, and who tried to prevent people from joining the Christian community, who tried to persuade those already among his disciples to defect. We know from the letters of Paul that this was happening in many communities. And it continues to happen today, sometimes with violence (e.g. persecution), and even more often in much more subtle ways (“It is not PC to be a Christian).

Jesus describes John as “Elijah, the one who is to come”. We know that the prophet Elijah did not die a natural death. He was carried off to heaven in a chariot. It was a Jewish belief that he would someday return to the earth and enter Sheol, the abode of the dead who awaited the coming of the Messiah. By calling John Elijah, Jesus clearly points to himself as the Messiah, and so he says “Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

We conclude this meditation by reflecting that the role of John the Baptist is one that every follower of Christ is called to fulfill. It is up to you and me to prepare the way for Christ and the vision of his Kingdom to enter the lives of his people. In the words of the Benedictus, a hymn recited every day in the Church’s Morning Prayer:

          You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High;
          For you will go before the Lord to prepare his way. (Luke 1:76)

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

I looked at pictures of a threshing sledge on internet. It is a board with rows of stone teeth embedded, like a shark's jaw. The farmer stands - or takes a seat - on the board while an animal pulls it along. It makes the threshing floor smooth and, from Isaiah's words, was probably also used to smooth paths.

Who would want to be a threshing sledge? The 'Redeemer' here reminds me of the story of Ruth. She laid herself down like a sledge on the threshing floor with her redeemer, Boaz. By doing so, she restored the fortunes of her family and became an ancestress of David and Our Lord.

The prophet is called to speak words that are sharp like the teeth of the threshing sledge. He's caught between God and a resistant people. It's a horrible job. But he rejoices in his redeemer just as Ruth rejoiced in hers.

John the Baptist was the last of these prophets, because Christ is the fulfilment of them all. In a way, he embodies them, so it should be no surprise that the violence that the prophets attracted is now directed to the Kingdom. Perhaps Christ's words are a warning to us not to be tempted or provoked by, nor to submit to, the violence that can penetrate even the Kingdom.