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. One of the goals of the spiritual journey is to come to value, more than our latest desire, more than our perceived need—more than all else—what God offers.
In reviewing today’s Gospel, I am going to take a stance regarding St. John the Baptist that I realize is not without controversy. The Gospel opens with John (who is in prison) sending his disciples to Jesus with a strange question: “Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?” This is a strange question coming from the one who pointed Jesus out and spoke so powerfully of Him!
Many of the Fathers of the Church (e.g., John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Theodore of Mopsuestia) interpreted John’s question as a rhetorical one, designed to teach his reluctant disciples to follow Jesus.
I, however, would like to present a different interpretation: that John’s question is a sincere one, and manifests some puzzlement—even discouragement.
While some will take offense no matter how many disclaimers I provide, I still insist that I mean no impiety in my interpretation. It is a common biblical stance that even the greatest scriptural heroes are presented in very human terms. Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, the judges and prophets, on down to the Apostles are all depicted as humans who are imperfect from the start, who struggle to understand and have perfect faith. Some of them committed great sins—even including murder. One of the most powerful themes of the Bible is that God is able to work with imperfect, struggling human beings and draw them to great sanctity and great accomplishments.
And thus out of respect for biblical tradition, I take today’s Gospel at what seems to me to be face value. If St. John is merely asking a rhetorical question, it seems odd that Jesus would not be aware of that. Instead, Jesus sends an answer back to John, asking him not to be scandalized (shocked) by the manner in which He goes about fulfilling Messianic texts.
I am not claiming 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 that 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).
Today’s Gospel is best seen in three stages, as John the Baptist is encouraged to make a journey from puzzlement, through purification, to perfection; a journey to understand that the perfect is gift is not one of our own imagining but of God’s true offer. It is a Gospel that encourages us to find and appreciate the perfect gift.
I. Puzzlement – 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 as He approached, saying, Behold, the Lamb of God (John 1:29). With humble hesitation, John had baptized the One who would change everything. He encouraged his disciples to follow after the One who was mightier than he. So why this unusual question?
Is John puzzled? Is he discouraged? It’s hard to say. Some argue that John doesn’t really mean the question seriously; he is just encouraging his disciples to ask it. But that had not been John’s approach in the past.
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 Sunday’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).
John is now in prison, relegated there by a tyrant, an oppressor—the very sort of man John was sure that the Messiah would cut down and cast into the fire. Where was the hoped-for deliverance? Where was the exaltation of the lowly and the 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. Although 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. The very one who had announced Jesus and pointed Him out when He came, sends his disciples to Jesus with a question: Are you he who is to come, or should we look for another?
John was not wholly off-base in his expectation of a Messiah coming in wrath. There are many texts that spoke of it. Here are a few:
- 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)
John had worked hard calling people to repentance in order to get them ready for the great and terrible day of the Lord. John’s puzzlement is thus understandable; Jesus goes about healing and preaching, and instead of slaying the wicked, endures 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, to see the wicked burned with fire and the righteous shine like the firmament. Like many of the prophets, John sensed that the perfect gift was this: 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 at this point 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 John’s disciples that draws from a different tradition of Messiah texts than those 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 the context, the audience, and also the possibility that the Messiah’s ministry might be accomplished in stages. Hence, while John the Baptist was not wrong in his application of the wrathful and vindicating texts to the Messiah, the New Testament tradition came to understand such texts more in terms of the Messiah’s second coming than 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 stitches 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).
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.
To those who are disappointed in His lack of wrathful vengeance, Jesus says something quite remarkable: And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.
Many of us have been hurt by others or have been deeply troubled by the fact that the wicked seem to prosper while the just struggle. When will God act? Why doesn’t He do something? It is very easy for us to be puzzled, discouraged, or even offended by God’s seeming inaction.
To all this Jesus simply says, And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.
It is essential to accept Jesus’ teaching in order to have our sense of the perfect gift purified. Rejoicing in any other gifts 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 very dangerous. The last time I checked, all of us are sinners.
Here, then, is the necessary purification in our thinking: God’s greatest gift is not the crushing of our enemies; it is His Son, Jesus. He is the Perfect Gift.
Further, it is not Jesus’ wrath that is His greatest gift; it is His grace and mercy. That is the perfect gift from the Perfect Gift. Without Jesus and a whole lot of His grace and mercy, we don’t stand a chance.
Even John the Baptist, of whom Christ said, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist—even he needs lots of grace and mercy.
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, 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 St. John the Baptist is 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? The world can produce only human, worldly excellence. Grace and mercy produce heavenly excellence and make us like unto God. Without these gifts of God, we don’t stand a chance. John the Baptist needed grace and mercy; Mother Teresa needed grace and mercy. Grace and mercy are perfect and necessary gifts.
One day the perfect justice of God that we all seek will roll in. But unless and until you receive the perfect gift of grace and mercy through Jesus, you will not be able to 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 are looking for the perfect gift this Christmas, look to Jesus. He alone can bestow the grace and mercy that we so desperately need. If even the holy St. John the Baptist was in need, how much more so you and I? Grace and mercy far exceed anything we can ask for or imagine.
Do you want to give the perfect gift to others? Then bring them to Jesus; bring them to Mass. Jesus awaits us in prayer, in the liturgy, in His Word proclaimed, and 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.