What is the perfect gift? We tend to answer this question more in terms of what we want. But today’s Gospel teaches us that the perfect gift is what God is offering, more that what we specifically want. One of the goals of the spiritual is to come to value, above all else, what God offers more than our latest interest of perceived need.
In reviewing today’s Gospel I am going to take a stance regarding St. John the Baptist that I realize is not without controversy. As the Gospel opens John, who is in prison, sends disciples with a strange question for Jesus: “Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another.” This is a strange question for the one who pointed Jesus out and spoke so powerfully of him.
Many of the Fathers of the Church (Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Theodore of Mopsuestia, inter al) have interpreted John’s question as merely rhetorical and a way of teaching his reluctant disciples to follow Jesus.
I however adopt here a different stance. That John’s question is sincere and manifests some puzzlement, even discouragement for the reasons stated below.
I mean no impiety by this. The depiction of biblical figures, even the greatest heroes presents them in very human terms. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, all the judges and prophets, on down to the apostles, present men (and women too) who are not perfect from the start, who struggle to understand and have perfect faith, and some of who sinned greatly, even to include murder. This is one of the most powerful aspects of the Bible, that God is able to take and work with imperfect and struggling human beings and draw them to great sanctity and accomplishments.
And thus, out of no impiety, but out of respect for biblical tradition I approach this Gospel at what seems to me to be its face value. If St. John is merely asking a rhetorical question, it seems odd that Jesus did not get the memo and sends and answer back to him, asking him (and us) not to be scandalized (shocked) by the manner he goes about fulfilling Messianic texts.
I do not argue that St. John is sinning or has failing faith; only that he, like all the prophets and patriarchs, (and us) must sometimes struggle to understand God’s ways. Even Mother Mary, when Jesus was twelve and said he must be in his Father’s house, did not understand what he was saying and had to ponder these things in her heart (cf Luke 2:50-51).
There is a humanity and a human dimension at work even in the greatest saints, and it is from that perspective that I explore this gospel. Am I too bold to take a stance different that some of the Church Fathers? You decide. I surely do not deny that they could well be right. John’s question is odd given his courageous faith. But something tells me to emphasize the humanity of John’s question more than a possible pedagogical purpose. As such the Gospel can speak more to, who even more that St. John struggle to understand some of God’s ways.
The Gospel today is best seen in three stages as John the Baptist, and we with him, are encouraged to make a journey from puzzlement, through purification to perfection; a journey to understand that the perfect is gift is not of our own imagining, but of God’s true offer. Here is a Gospel that encourages us to find and appreciate the perfect gift.
I. Puzzlement – The Gospel opens strangely: 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?”
This is a strange question given what St. John had already done. With delight John had pointed out Christ when he came: Look there is the Lamb of God! (John 1:29). With humble hesitation he had baptized the one who would change everything. He encouraged his disciples to follow after the one who is mightier than I! Why now this question?
Is John puzzled? Is he discouraged? It is hard to say. While some argue he doesn’t really mean the question seriously, he is just encouraging others to ask it. But that had not been John’s approach in the past. He just said, “Look, there he is!”
So perhaps John is puzzled or even struggling to understand. Consider that John had been looking for a Messiah who would root out injustice, crush the wicked, destroy the oppressors and exalt the poor and the oppressed. Recall his words from last week’s gospel:
Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Mat 3:10-12)
Yet now John is in prison! Placed there by a tyrant, an oppressor. The very sort of man John was sure that Messiah would cut down and cast into fire. Where was the hoped for deliverance? Where was the exultation of the lowly and casting down of the mighty? Where was the axe being laid to the root of the tree?
Jesus was not doing this sort of thing at all. Though he had some confrontations with religious leaders, his main work seems to have been healing the sick and summoning average people to repentance and faith.
So perhaps John’s question is genuine and he is puzzled or discouraged, or so it would seem. And thus we see the very one who had announced Jesus, and pointed him out when he came, sending his disciples to Jesus with a question: Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?
Now John was not wholly baseless in his expectation of a wrathful coming of the Messiah. There are many texts that spoke of it. For example here are three:
- Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; as destruction from the Almighty it will come!…Behold, the day of the LORD comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it….I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant, and lay low the haughtiness of the ruthless. Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of its place, at the wrath of the LORD of hosts in the day of his fierce anger. (Is 13:6-10)
- Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken asunder by him. (Nahum 1:6)
- But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (Mal 3:2)
So John had worked hard to call people to repentance to get them ready for the great and terrible day of the Lord. John’s puzzlement is thus understandable as Jesus does not slay the wicked, but instead goes about healing and preaching and, instead of slaying the wicked he is enduring scorn and ridicule from those in power.
The perfect gift for John would be to see all injustice rooted out, to see the threshing floor cleared and the distinction between the wheat and the chaff made obvious, for the wicked to be burnt with fire and the righteous shine like the firmament. Like many of the prophets, John’s sense of the perfect gift was But let judgment run down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream! (Amos 5:24)
Of itself this is a good and biblical vision that will one day be accomplished. But for now, is it the perfect gift, is it the gift that Jesus wants to offer? What is the perfect gift?
II. Purification – Jesus gives an answer to those sent by John that draws from a different tradition of Messiah texts than what John had emphasized. The Old Testament texts that spoke of the Messiah were complicated and at times hard to interpret. While some texts spoke of his wrath toward the wicked and unjust, others spoke of his healing and mercy.
The differences in the description of the Messiah had a lot to do with context, audience and also the possibility that the Messiah’s ministry might be accomplished in stages. Hence, while John the Baptist is not wrong in his application of the wrathful and vindicating texts to the Messiah, the New Testament tradition came to understand such texts more of the Messiah’s second coming than of his first.
Jesus thus gives the following answer to those sent by John:
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.
In this answer, Jesus is stitching together many quotes and prophecies about the Messiah, mostly from Isaiah. For example consider the following:
- In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 29:18-19)
- The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn ( Is 61:1-3)
- The dead shall live, their bodies shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For thy dew is a dew of light, and on the land of the shades thou wilt let it fall. (Is 26:19)
- Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy. (Is 35:5-6)
Thus, there is a need to purify our sense of what is best for God to do, to come to a better appreciation of the perfect gift.
Jesus says something quire remarkable in today’s Gospel to those who are disappointed in his lack of wrathful vengeance: And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.
For indeed, many of us have been hurt by others; or have been deeply troubled that the wicked seem to prosper and the just struggle. When will God act, why doesn’t God do something! Indeed, it is very possible for us to be puzzled, discouraged, even offended at God’s inaction or slowness to act.
To all this Jesus simply says, And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.
It is essential to accept Jesus teaching here in order to have our sense of the perfect gift purified . Rejoicing in any other gift than grace and mercy is very dangerous. Hoping for a wrathful punishment to be inflicted on the proud and all sinful oppressors, or wishing this upon individuals or even whole segments of the world is a very dangerous thing. Last time I checked, none of us are outside the category “sinner.”
Here then is the necessary purification in our thinking: God’s greatest gift is not the crushing of our enemies. God’s greatest gift is His Son Jesus.Here is the perfect Gift.
Further, it is not Jesus’ wrath that is his greatest gift, it is his grace and mercy, here is perfect gift from Perfect Gift. Without Jesus and boatloads of his grace and mercy we don’t stand a chance.
Even John the Baptist of who Christ says, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist, even he needs lots of grace and mercy as we shall see.
III. Perfection – And thus we see that the perfect gift is the grace and mercy of Jesus. It is not the destruction of our enemies, it is not a sudden and swift ushering in of justice before God’s chosen time. The perfect gift is the grace and mercy of Jesus which all of us, without exception desperately need.
In order to emphasize the absolute necessity of grace and mercy, and the perfect gift that they are, Jesus turns to the crowds and speaks of St. John the Baptist:
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.
And thus John the Baptist was the pinnacle. The best that this world has produced. But pay attention to what the Lord says next:
Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Do you see what grace and mercy can do? Do you see that they surpass any worldly excellence? For the world can produce only human and worldly excellence. But Grace and Mercy produce heavenly excellence and make us like unto God.And without these gifts of God we don’t stand a chance. Even John the Baptist needed grace and mercy, Mother Teresa needed grace and mercy. Grace and mercy are the perfect gift, are the necessary gift.
One day the perfect justice of God that John and all of us seek will roll in. But until and unless you receive the perfect gift of Grace and Mercy through Jesus, you will not endure the perfect justice of God! So until that time, it has pleased God to offer us the perfect gift of his Son, who by his grace and mercy will prepare us for that day.
If you seek the perfect gift this Christmas, look to Jesus, for he alone can bestow the grace and mercy that we desperately need. If even the holy John the Baptist was in need, how much more you and I. Grace and mercy far excel any thing we can ask or imagine.
Do you want to give the perfect gift for others? Then bring them to Jesus, bring them to Mass. Jesus awaits us in prayer, in the liturgy, in his Word proclaimed, in the sacraments. Jesus is the perfect gift. The destruction of sinners is not the perfect gift. Their conversion and salvation is.
Find the perfect gift this Christmas, find Jesus. Give the perfect gift this Christmas, give Jesus. Give Jesus the perfect gift this Christmas, give him the give of your very self. The perfect gift. http://findtheperfectgift.org/