The Perfect Gift – A Homily for Gaudete Sunday

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:

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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:

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  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)
  4. 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.


35 Replies to “The Perfect Gift – A Homily for Gaudete Sunday”

  1. Awesome homily, Msgr.! I dont’ see how John could know our Lord would die and rise and send the Spirit as He did. Maybe, even after being touched by God so profoundly, his trust was shaken. I just want to add the healing Sacrament, Penance / Reconciliation is a great gift and necessary for the greater, Holy Communion.

  2. My paternal great grandfather was one in a succession of family members named Jean Baptiste Pondrom which appeared to be a popular christening name amongst the French. He came to the U.S. from Luxembourg /Belgium region back around 1854 and attended St. Louis Medical School where he became a surgeon, later honing his skills in the specialty field of amputology as a surgeon in an artillery unit out of St. Louis during the Civil War. His uncle who was also named Jean Baptiste Pondrom was also a doctor in that Luxemboug area now part of Belgium and was instrumental in caring for Prussian occupation forces as well as the local citizens during a cholera epidemic back in the 1840’s. They were people of strong Catholic faith who I am sure questioned why God had subjected their families lives to such tumultous events yet their faith was not shaken by the fate of their circumstances. There is a commune in Belgium named Pondrome with an ‘e’ that supposedly dates back to the ancient time of Roman occupation and I don’t doubt that their was a Jean Baptiste Pondrom living back then since the name goes back several generations. I would assume their faith was not shaken either and may very well have been established in Catholicism as a result of that occupation. If John the Baptist lost his head expecting the coming of a rathful Messiah, many of his name sakes that have followed tended to preach grace and mercy. I guess he got the message.

  3. Wonderful homily!! Years ago I heard a message which included these words of John the Baptist, uttered while in prison. I find them very encouraging because they show that men of faith sometimes struggle to understand what God is doing, especially when they find themselves in trouble.

    There had been times in my life when everything was going so badly and I wondered if I just imagined everything – my conversion, God’s presence, the conviction that Christianity makes so much sense…. this happens when people are badly shaken. But I guess we don’t ever know who we are – and who God is – until we’ve been tested.

    In the New Testament we read several times that Our Blessed Mother did not understand what was happening, and that she “pondered these things in her heart.”

  4. Thank you for explaining this, Monsignor!

    This passage has always confused and bugged me…

    Thank you for your vocation and for sharing your fantastic homilies…I learn so much from them.

    God Bless!

  5. Makes sense to me.

    Even Mary once asked the Lord, ‘Son why have you treated us this way?’

    One thing about this interpretation: it invites us to re-examine our usual attitude about that part of the Jewish rejection of Christ which was based on a failure to understand that the Lord had not come in order to cast off the Roman yoke from the Jewish people. We often view this failure of understanding as being a fault in the Jewish outlook. If, however, even John the Baptist shared this misconception to some extent, the other Jewish people can scarcely be expected to have done better.

  6. Amen. Interesting post.

    Here is what the The Golden Chain of St. Thomas Aquinas says about Matthew 11:2-6:

    2. Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples,

    3. And said to him, Are you he that should come, or do we look for another?

    4. Jesus answered and said to them, Go and show John again those things which you do hear and see:

    5. The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.

    6. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.

    GLOSS. The Evangelist had shown above how by Christ’s miracles and teaching, both His disciples and the multitudes had been instructed; he now shows how this instruction had reached even to John’s disciples, so that they seemed to have some jealousy towards Christ; John, when he had heard in prison the works of Christ, sent two of his disciples to say to him, Are you he that should come, or do we look for another?

    GREG. We must inquire how John, who is a prophet and more than a prophet, who made known the Lord when He came to be baptized, saying, Behold the Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world! – why, when he was afterwards cast into prison, he should send his disciples to ask, Are you he that should come, or do we look for another? Did he not know Him whom he had pointed out to others; or was he uncertain whether this was He, whom by foretelling, by baptizing, and by making known, he had proclaimed to be He?

    AMBROSE; Some understand it thus; That it was a great thing that John should be so far a prophet, as to acknowledge Christ, and to preach remission of sin; but that like a pious prophet, he could not think that He whom he had believed to be He that should come, was to suffer death; he doubted therefore though not in faith, yet in love. So Peter also doubted, saying, This be far from you, Lord; this shall not be to you.

    CHRYS. But this seems hardly reasonable. For John was not in ignorance of His death, but was the first to preach it, saying, Behold, the Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world. For thus calling Him the Lamb, he plainly shows forth the Cross; and no otherwise than by the Cross did He take away the sins of the world. Also how is he a greater prophet than these, if he knew not those things which all the prophets knew; for Isaiah says, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter.

    GREG. But this question may be answered in a better way if we attend to the order of time. At the waters of Jordan he had affirmed that this was the Redeemer of the world: after he was thrown into prison, he inquires if this was He that should come – not that he doubted that this was the Redeemer of the world, but he asks that he may know whether He who in His own person had come into the world, would in His own person descend also to the world below.

    JEROME; Hence he frames his question thus, Are you he that is to come? Not, Are you He that has come? And the sense is, Direct me, since I am about to go down into the lower parts of the earth, whether I shall announce You to the spirits beneath also; or whether You as the Son of God may not taste death, but will send another to this sacrament?

    CHRYS. But is this a more reasonable explanation than the other? for why then did he not say, Are You He that is coming to the world beneath? and not simply, Are you he that is to come? And the reason of his seeking to know, namely, that he might preach Him there, is even ridiculous. For the present life is the time of grace, and after death the judgment and punishment; therefore there was no need of a forerunner thither. Again, if the unbelievers who should believe after death should be saved, then none would perish; all would then repent and worship; for every knee shall bow, both of things in heaven and things in earth, and things under the earth.

    GLOSS. But it ought to be observed, that Jerome and Gregory did not say that John was to proclaim Christ’s coming to the world beneath, to the end that the unbelievers there might be converted to the faith, but that the righteous who abode in expectation of Christ, should be comforted by His near approach.

    HILARY; It is indeed certain, that he who as forerunner proclaimed Christ’s coming, as prophet knew Him when He stood before him, and worshipped Him as Confessor when He came to him, could not fall into error from such abundant knowledge. Nor can it be believed that the grace of the Holy Spirit failed him when thrown into prison, seeing He should hereafter minister the light of His power to the Apostles when they were in prison.

    JEROME; Therefore he does not ask as being himself ignorant. But as the Savior asks where Lazarus is buried, in order that they who showed Him the sepulcher might be so far prepared for faith, and believe that the dead was verily raised again – so John, about to be put to death by Herod, sends his disciples to Christ, that by this opportunity of seeing His signs and wonders they might believe in Him, and so might learn through their master’s inquiry. But John’s disciples had somewhat of bitterness and jealousy towards the Lord, as their former inquiry showed, Why do you and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples fast not?

    CHRYS. Yet whilst John was with them he held them rightly convinced concerning Christ. But when he was going to die, he was more concerned on their behalf. For he feared that he might leave his disciples a prey to some pernicious doctrine, and that they should remain separate from Christ, to whom it had been his care to bring all his followers from the beginning. Had he said to them, Depart from me, for He is better than me, he would not have prevailed with them, as they would have supposed that he spoke this in humility, which opinion would have drawn them more closely to him. What then does he? He waits to hear through them that Christ works miracles. Nor did he send all, but two only, (whom perhaps he chose as more ready to believe than the rest,) that the reason of his inquiry might be unsuspected, and that from the things themselves which they should see they might understand the difference between him and Jesus.

    HILARY; John then is providing not for his own, but his disciples’ ignorance; that they might know that it was no other whom he had proclaimed, he sent them to see His works, that the works might establish what John had spoken; and that they should not look for any other Christ, than Him to whom His works had borne testimony.

    CHRYS. So also Christ as knowing the mind of John, said not, I am He; for thus He would have put an obstacle in the way of those that heard Him, who would have at least thought within themselves, if they did not say, what the Jews did say to Christ, You bear witness of yourself. Therefore He would have them learn from His miracles, and so presented His doctrine to them more clear, and without suspicion. For the testimony of deeds is stronger than the testimony of words. Therefore He straightway healed a number of blind, and lame, and many other, for the sake not of John who had knowledge, but of others who doubted; as it follows, And Jesus answered and said to them, Go and tell John what you have heard and seen; The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the Gospel preached to them.

    JEROME; This last is no less than the first. And understand it as if it had been said, Even the poor; that so between noble and mean, rich and poor, there may be no difference in preaching. This approves the strictness of the master, this the truth of the teacher, that in His sight every one who can be saved is equal.

    CHRYS. And blessed is he who shall not be offended in me, is directed against the messengers; they were offended in Him. But He not publishing their doubts, and leaving it to their conscience alone, thus privately introduced a refutation of them.

    HILARY; This saying, that they were blessed from whom there should be no offense in Him, showed them what it was that John had provided against in sending them. For John, through fear of this very thing, had sent his disciples that they might hear Christ.

    GREG. Otherwise; The mind of unbelievers was greatly offended concerning Christ, because after many miracles done, they saw Him at length put to death; whence Paul speaks, We preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling-block. What then does that mean, Blessed is he who shall not be offended in me, but a direct allusion to the humiliation of His death; as much as to say, I do indeed wonderful works, but do not disdain to suffer humble things. Because then I follow you in death, men must be careful not to despise in Me My death, while they reverence My wonderful works.

    HILARY; In these things which were done concerning John, there is a deep store of mystic meaning. The very condition and circumstances of a prophet are themselves a prophecy. John signifies the Law; for the Law proclaimed Christ, preaching remission of sins, and giving promise of the kingdom of heaven. Also when the Law was on the point of expiring, (having been, through the sins of the people, which hindered them from understanding what it spoke of Christ, as it were shut up in bonds and in prison,) it sends men to the contemplation of the Gospel, that unbelief might see the truth of its words established by deeds.

    AMBROSE; And perhaps the two disciples sent are the two people ; those of the Jews, and those of the Gentiles who believed.

    1. I too often turn to Aquinas’s Catena Aurea to help me in understanding tricky passages in Scripture. Sometimes it helps and sometimes I am still a little puzzled. One bit that still puzzles me is the time when Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him after his resurrection because he has not yet ascended to his Father. He does not tell the other women the same thing when he meets them. The Catena Aurea suggests that Mary’s faith was much stronger that that of the other women so she should have a deeper understanding of what was happening.

    2. ‘AMBROSE; Some understand it thus; That it was a great thing that John should be so far a prophet, as to acknowledge Christ, and to preach remission of sin; but that like a pious prophet, he could not think that He whom he had believed to be He that should come, was to suffer death; he doubted therefore though not in faith, yet in love. So Peter also doubted, saying, This be far from you, Lord; this shall not be to you.

      CHRYS. But this seems hardly reasonable. For John was not in ignorance of His death, but was the first to preach it, saying, Behold, the Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world. For thus calling Him the Lamb, he plainly shows forth the Cross; and no otherwise than by the Cross did He take away the sins of the world. Also how is he a greater prophet than these, if he knew not those things which all the prophets knew; for Isaiah says, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter.’

      I found Msgr’s musings convincing, but this logic seems difficult to surmount, unless perhaps John did not understand that Jesus, as the Lamb of God, was to suffer actual physical death. Perhaps John thought this was some kind of metaphor for what Jesus would do to take away our sins, but not that it meant that He would actually die. Certainly in retrospect that seems odd to us, who know of Jesus’ death. But Jesus had not yet died at the time John said those words. So perhaps John did not mean them in the way St Chrysostom says he must have meant them. So perhaps St Chrysostom was wrong that what John was saying later would therefore be unreasonable. Perhaps St C here makes a mistaken assumption.

      Who knows! If we come to that happy realm one day, all such questions will be answered, I would imagine.

      How do we come to authoritative understandings of such texts? What is the process?

      1. Have you never struggled to understand God’s ways? I preached boldly in my early years as a priest, and I surely knew and preached the theology of the cross, only to have a personal struggle with depression and anxiety, which made me wonder at some of my understandings of God and the faith, then after emerging purified by this, I preached more boldly and yet also more humbly. Not so hard really. Faith is not always a straight arrow up, but filled with ups and downs that, prayerfully trend upward.

        John was human, he was graced to preach rightly, but that did not mean he never had any questions in the quieter moments of his life. In some sense he is like Peter who was graced to teach rightly but had to be “rebuked” by Paul in the way he lived the correct teaching in his own life). John here does not seem to need rebuke, but he does seem to need reassurance and clarification in the way Messiah will unfold his plan.

        I quote John’s vision from last Sunday about the axe being laid to root of tree etc. The evidence suggests that he expected a swift ushering of the Kingdom and a rooting out of injustice and sin. That he called Jesus the Lamb, does not mean he necessarily had a fully developed theology of the cross. We do that, looking back, but that does not mean that John at the riverside had all vision and knowledge.

        Faith is a journey. I cannot read John’s mind and know all, but the “plain” meaning of the text is that John was struggling a bit and sought clarification. That Jesus sent an answer back to John of reassurance and clarification suggests that Jesus saw John’s question as authentic, not merely rhetorical or asked for the sake of others.

        I don’t disrespect the Fathers of the Church, I generally find good counsel and clues from their teaching. But their’s alone is not the definitive interpretation of every text, and they often have different views among themselves.

        One danger to avoid in Catholic circles is that hemming ourselves in when that is not required. When the Church teaches authoritatively on a subject then that is definitive, and we rightly say the matter is settled. But I am unaware of any authoritative ruling by the Church to the effect that John’s question must not be understood to mean or indicate that he had puzzlement or struggle.

        As I said in the article, I know of no other biblical figure, with the possible exception of the Patriarch Joseph, who did not struggle in some way with God, and to understand and lay hold of the faith more deeply. This is the nature of faith and of how God works with us, that he grants the faith and then through testings and struggles, purifies and deepens our capacity to trust and understand. These things were also written for our instruction who make the same journey.

        While I cannot read the minds of the Fathers or yours, something says to me that many of us want to “rescue” John’s reputation in some sense. But for the reasons stated, I see no reason to do this; I am in no way troubled by John’s question. He is making the journey, and dies nobly for the faith he proclaims; but he, like us, walks by faith, not by sight. I admire his courage even more given that he was human like me and at times wondered as to God’s ways. He stays in the conversation with Jesus.

        How he received the news back from Jesus is unknown to us. But this much is clear, he in no way signaled Herod that he recanted, and thus Herod silenced his voice. He died a martyr for Jesus and the Kingdom of God.

        By the way John was “wrong” when he said he was not Elijah. Jesus says at least twice, he IS Elijah. So John wasn’t 100% right on every occasion just because he was a prophet or a holy man. He did proclaim without error what God gave him to proclaim, preparing people for Jesus and pointing him out. He then steps back. What made him holy was not his intellectual rectitude, but his willingness to stay with God in the conversation. God perfected John. How about you and me?

        1. I so much appreciate your wisdom and knowledge and I can see clearly how God opens the windows to let His Light shine in. I guess discussions like these are necessary for us all and so I learn to trust in God when the day is done and many of my questions still remain. And so too I am even more compelled to look forward to the Day of Hope when we are told in Isaiah 11:1-10 (Dec. 8, Second Sunday of Advent, first reading, in part) “There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea.” As “water covers the sea”, wow!! I am really looking forward to that day!!

  7. Could Jesus be saying, blessed is (the one) John who is NOT taking offense? (As so many pharisees and others did take offense of John and Jesus.) Is Jesus speaking of the “violence” against John and soon to be against Himself when He says: Matthew 11:12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. And then Jesus talks about Himself and John and the “offense” of them taken by others: Matthew 11:18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Jesus says: “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”… deeds being all the miracles of Jesus that he has just told John’s disciples go to tell John? (and I am not completely convinced that John was not asking Jesus if He was to come to where John was – “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” — I hope that doesn’t sound silly!)

  8. Yes, good points in the article and comments – all as gifts of The Spirit , which is The Greast gift that The Lord want us to have – The Spirit, that hovered over the waters in the beginning and has been part of each of us from eons beyond – The Father of Life , whom we almost had forgotten, by the workings of the enemy and whose power The Lord comes to reveal for each of us !

    Thus , His Mother is described as an ‘army set in battle array ‘ ( Song of Songs ) and soon, as the nation’s capital gets ready to be engaged, in the war against The Father of life and His gift of life, the truth of the dignity and worth of each life which has been a work of The Spirit from way past through generations , we each can ardently invoke Him, through The Incarnation, to cast off the fear, contempt and hatred of life , that by the intercession of The Mother, who treads down the serpent , as The Immaculate Conception , the blessings that have been meant for us all , flow in , through her holy hands and heart !

    Would it be that , until the Passion and death of The Lord, even John The Baptist could not call down The Spirit , thus to cast off the serpent from others whereas , with the coming of The Spirit , each of us is given such a glorious role .
    The Book of Rev .mentions how the saints engage in spiritual warfare from heaven and they are called forth , at every Holy Mass ; thus , not hard to imagine St.John The Baptist , now empowered in the role , to cut off the arrogant , boasting heads , by the sword of The Spirit and may be with the help of Magdalene , cast off demonic and lustful spirits from many , so that those thus freed can dance, to the hymn of gratitude to The Spirit !

    The Spirit that is a gift to the obediant and faithful – may The Lord and His Mother be gracious , to cast off from the depth of the hearts of all in our lives , that which might be keeping any of us in the prison of prideful disbelief and divisions , helping us instead , to become ardent , faithful warriors , for The Lord and Father !

    A blessed Christmas and Newyear to all !

  9. In the light of the OT law John’s question may also help me to better understand the mystery of Joseph’s decision to put Mary away after their betrothal when he learned of her pregnancy. I’m not sure what their knowledge, if any, of the Holy Trinity may have been? Without the doctrine of the Trinity, I wonder if either question or decision indicates a lack of faith as much as they indicate a very great love and fear of God in light of the law, up to that point, their non Trinitarian understanding of God and God’s law revealed to them.

  10. In July 2009, I came that same conclusion about John the Baptist when I wrote a dissertation for my children about the first Illuminous Myster, the Baptism of Jesus. I wrote …

    After John baptized Jesus who later began to teach the crowds, he noted that Jesus made no move to assemble an army, and even talked of turning the other cheek to those who would strike them, and warning that those who take up the sword shall die by the sword. John had apparently expected his cousin Jesus to be like King David, the greatest military leader of all. Being confused by Jesus’ his lack of military-like aggressiveness, John sent a couple of his followers from his imprisonment by King Herod to talk with Jesus, asking, “Art thou he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” [Mt 11:2 and 3] Jesus’ answer essentially assured John that the solution to the world’s problems was not a military one, but rather consisted of following his example of humility and obedience to the will of God the Father Who is to be placed above all things, loving one’s neighbor as himself because of that love for the Father Who loves all his creatures, and serving even the least of his brethren.

    Jesus said of John, “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen a greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” [Mt 11:11]

  11. From the Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910: “John, in his fetters, was attended by some of his disciples, who kept him in touch with the events of the day. He thus learned of the wonders wrought by Jesus. At this point it cannot be supposed that John’s faith wavered in the least.” I would consider that pretty authoritative.

    1. The Catholic Encyclopedia is not a magisterial source. Disagree with me all you wish but do not accuse me of being contrary to authoritative teaching. I honestly disclose the controversial nature of my stance viz the Fathers, though not all the Fathers. That said, there is no authoritative Catholic interpretation of this text contrary to my view that I have ever discovered. Please restrain yourself Drew from accusations of this sort. You clearly don’t like my interpretation, fine, ignore it, or show where it is internally or logically inconsistent, but don’t trot out the authority thing. I am a loyal son of the Church, and the Church allows some liberty in understanding mnay (not all) biblical texts. Further I do not argue that John’s faith wavered. I simply suggest he may have been struggle to understand the Lord’s ways, just like Mother Mary did at one point.

  12. I always enjoy your posts Msgr. but, I disagree with you on this position. It seems to be a modern one that wants to put John in some sort of “dark night” of doubt. Clearly some of the fathers played with this speculation, as the quote from Ambrose from the Catena Aurea above shows, but, Aquinas in his commentary on Mathew at this verse does not take this position, and in fact, he goes to great lengths to imply the opposite. In doing this, he synthesizes the Patristic texts and give their opinions and then gives his own brilliant analysis. Bottom line on Aquinas’ position is that John was too great of a prophet (none greater born of a woman) to have doubted that Jesus was the Messiah. The whole biblical evidence is that his whole life (from the womb of his mother) centered on him being the predestined precursor of the Messiah Himself! One can check out Aquinas’ commentary at the following link:

    Keep up the good work with the posts! We all really enjoy them!
    In the Peace of the Christ Child!

    1. Thanks, you might also see my response to Yan below. St. Thomas is surely a reputable fellow. But more general problem with approaching the question of John remains however since we seem to be carving out an interpretation of the text and the question that we do for almost no other Biblical figure. And I am not sure why. Every biblical figure struggles, this is part of the way that God seems to “tell the story.” But thanks, I appreciate your tone here, and I DO understand that I take a stance here different from some of the Fathers et al. and that my view is thus NOT without controversy. I am not surprised or alarmed that some or many disagree with me. But as a preacher, I sometimes explore interpretations that I think open the text more for the average disciple who can see a lot of themselves in John’s question. In exploring an unconventional interpretation, (which I rarely do), I do strive to see that my use of the text is internally consistent, not contrary to Church defined teaching and/or at odds with a meaning definitively declared by the Church. I intensely dislike most “modern” (as you call them) views that seek to dissemble the text or apply merely clever interpretations that do not respect wider biblical tradition or go plainly against the “plain” meaning of the text. That said, I think it is helpful to have different views aired from time to time, other things being equal.

      Anyway, more below in the answer to Yan.

  13. I favor Msgr’s interpretation. Since Jesus doesn’t answer directly (yes/no), I wonder if it’s His foreshadowing of “Who do you say that I am?” It seems a final test for the prophet, who knew what the Father wanted oracled, but who was perhaps still learning the exact flavor of the prophet’s reward. I think I might have experienced something like this in a small way recently, when I was banned from a technology and ethics site for saying that I found sodomitical acts conceptually unintelligible. The peculiar note of that persecution, for me, was the _sadness_ I felt at being denied a voice unjustly. Receiving insults from riled opponents can be fun, but real persecution no one welcomes.

  14. Beautiful, Father, and I could not help but think of Romano Guardini who is very touching on this gospel.

    “Often, naively, we imagine the illumination of a prophet as a fixed thing, as though he had only to behold, once, in order to know without wavering forever after; as though once gripped by the Spirit, he stood fast for all time. In reality even a prophet’s life is shaken by all storms and saddled with all weaknesses. At time the Spirit hoists him far above the heights of human accomplishment or being; then he beholds, drawing from his vision the power to unhinge history. At other times, the Spirit drops him, and back he plunges headlong into darkness and impotency, like Elias in the desert when he flung himself down beneath a bush and begged for death. Perhaps John did ask for his own sake; if this is true, what agonizing hours must have shaped that message to Jesus!”

    and finally:

    “The Lord called John the greatest of those born of woman; therefore he was the greatest. Moreover, he could not possibly have remained unconscious of his greatness: of the immeasurable power and weight of his existence.

  15. Beautiful, Father, and I could not help but think of Romano Guardini who is very touching on this gospel.

    “Often, naively, we imagine the illumination of a prophet as a fixed thing, as though he had only to behold, once, in order to know without wavering forever after; as though once gripped by the Spirit, he stood fast for all time. In reality even a prophet’s life is shaken by all storms and saddled with all weaknesses. At time the Spirit hoists him far above the heights of human accomplishment or being; then he beholds, drawing from his vision the power to unhinge history. At other times, the Spirit drops him, and back he plunges headlong into darkness and impotency, like Elias in the desert when he flung himself down beneath a bush and begged for death. Perhaps John did ask for his own sake; if this is true, what agonizing hours must have shaped that message to Jesus!”

    and finally:

    “The Lord called John the greatest of those born of woman; therefore he was the greatest. Moreover, he could not possibly have remained unconscious of his greatness: of the immeasurable power and weight of his existence.
    It was John’s mission – and greatness – to proclaim the advent of the kingdom. Nor was he in any way unworthy to do so, he who “even from his mother’s womb” was filled with the Holy Spirit. It could only mean that his particular vocation was to lead the way to the promised realm, to direct others to it, but in some special sense to remain without. One is reminded of Moses close to death, standing on Mount Nebo and looking down on the Promised Land. He is not allowed to enter. Not until he has passed through death does he come into the true land of promise. For Moses this was punishment; he had failed in an hour of trial. For John it was not punishment but vocation. Everything in him cried out to be with Christ, in that kingdom of God about to dawn in Messianic abundance, ushering in the new creation. For us its bliss is unimaginable, but for the prophet, who had felt it deeply, it was the object of his most powerful longing. Yet he was not allowed to enter. No psychology, indeed no one who has not personally penetrated deep into the mystery if the divine will, can explain this. This side of death, John was to remain Precursor: herald of the kingdom.
    Let us concentrate for a moment on his fate. He lies in prison, a powerless victim of wretched paltriness and fully aware of the death threatening him from Herodias’ hatred. Must not the knowledge of his own greatness have revolted against the apparent senselessness of it all? Surely his darkest hours came then, and with them danger of rebellion and doubt.: Can he who allows such things to happen to his servants really be the Messiah?
    If it was thus, the heart must overflow at the mystery of love demanding the utmost, yet so gently: so all-knowing in spite of the distance between them, so calmly trusting. Into the depths of John’s lowest hour then would Jesus’ word have been spoken: “Blessed is he who is not scandalized in me.” The Lord knows his herald; knows his need. The message sent by the mouth of his uncomprehending disciples into the darkness of the dungeon is a divine message. John understood.”

    The Lord by Romano Guardinin (The Forerunner)

  16. Thank you, Msgr. Wonderful homily.
    Questioning is a very human thing and does not really imply doubt. We have only secondary telling of quotes and events as presented in scripture. The written text does not include inflection nor facial features. John’s question may have also been a loving reminder to his cousin to keep the faith and carry on.

    Even Jesus questioned from the cross, “Why have You forsaken me?”.

    I’ve been at odds with many theologians over the “Thou art the rock” text. I have always thought that it was spoken with Our Lord’s tongue firmly in his cheek. He knew that Peter’s lapses were human and that future inheritors of the gospel would be no different. I think that there was such love in that wry humor.

    1. Yes, thanks. I might not be able to utter an unqualified Amen to your second point, if I understand it correctly. Reason, the magisterium is pretty clear on the Petrine office and its derivation from this text, and others as well. I have no doubt that Peter was not YET the rock when Jesus said this. But I think it clear that Jesus surely meant that in due time, after the Ascension and surely after Pentecost that Peter would be the rock. But even here we ought not exaggerate his charism of infallibility, which the Church sets forth in very specific ways, as more of a negative protection from uttering error in faith and morals, not a guarantee that everything coming from his mouth is ipso facto infallible, but only those things of faith and morals stated to be definitively held by the faithful. Further as the Galatians text states, the Petrine office does not guarantee impeccability.

  17. This is homily is filled with spiritual wisdom. I am preparing -once more- for Christmas, to receive the grace of Emmanuel, of the Incarnation, of the Kingdom of God among us and like John the Baptist, I am not immune to pain and suffering, disappointment and doubt. (…And then we have a “gaudete” Sunday…) So thank you John the Baptiste for not ‘faking it’ your state of mind while in prison -it helped me find joy! Thank you for asking the question, and not taking offense in your cousin’s gift, and the way he shows the ‘annihilation of God’s enemies’ with tenderness and service. Thank you for receiving the gift and going all the way to the end in this collaboration, preparing hearts to receive the grace of ‘seeing’ God’s kingdom. Also, thank you to the gospel writers who wrote down the eye witness account of John’s question and Jesus’ answer. And thank you Msgr Pope for writing about grace, because I need it, not just to celebrate Christmas in the spirit of Christ but because I will later have to recognize how I am capable of crucifying God’s tenderness… Thank you Lord for your Mercy…

  18. The Great Biblical Commentator of the 17th century, Conelius A Lapide, agrees with Aquinas’ commentary in their synthesis of Patristic commentary on this verse that, John was sending his disciples to Jesus in order that, being close to his own martyrdom, they would be prepared to follow Jesus after John was gone and so they would recognize Jesus as the Messiah, the One John was preparing the way for. Lapide also rules out that John doubted . . . It is important to be connected to the Tradition in taking our opinions on these passages, though again, as you state, there have been no magisterial statements on this verse (however, that goes for most of the New Testament). The great commentary by Lapide can be found here:


    1. Okay, but since were batting this thing back-and-forth and quoting this expert, versus that expert in this overall comment thread, I would like to suggest that the argument from authority alone isn’t getting us very far. I have already admitted, that very reputable people do not share the viewpoint that I present. I have also expressed my concerns, that sometimes in the Church we get locked in to certain interpretations, when we don’t have to. In most texts there is a liberty for various views. Heck we can’t even agree on which Gospel was written first. So I am not sure why this view, an alternative view to be sure is a matter of such sensitivity for some.

      I still see no evidence that there is only one way we as Catholics are permitted to see this text, no magisterial statements that require us to hold John wasn’t really asking for himself. So the argument from authority, interesting though it is, is it really going anywhere.

      Thus, the question I would propose, is: What internal evidence is there in this text, given John’s question, and Jesus response, that John doesn’t mean his question for himself. It just seems to me that saying, “John doesn’t really mean what it seems like he obviously does mean here…his question is really not his own” relies too much on a priori assumptions. In other words, if we are trying to explain John’s motivations, it seems we have to make lots of speculations and assumptions. And that is fine, but if one is going to set aside what the text seems to plainly state, namely the John has questions HE would like answered, then we ought to have something more then a priori assumptions. For it is not just that John asks, but Jesus responds in a way that presume the question is John’s and in giving his answer says, “Go tell John….” So the whole context seems to say that John is asking Jesus something, and Jesus answers John.

      And this concern of mine about speculation and a priori assumptions holds true even if you’re a Father of the Church, or A Jesuit in the 17th century. You are of course free to hold this position of yours, along with many other very reputable people, such as the Fathers, Fr. Cornelius. But I don’t think simply collecting “authorities” as one commenter calls them, trumpeting acclaim like “The Great Biblical Commentator of the 17th century…” really gets to the point or addresses the interpretation I raise.

      I’m simply trying to explain why, for me, the explanation seems a bit contrived, and designed more to save John’s reputation, for some reason. But as I have already stated, I don’t think it is necessary to save John’s reputation, and that there is nothing implicitly wrong, or shameful about John’s questions. So again, my question is, what if any internal evidence is there in the text that warrants this interpretation? I don’t really see it. And simply saying to me well certain very reputable authorities disagree with you doesn’t of itself answer my view since, as far as I can tell, there is nothing that magisterial authority (the only authority that would really matter here) tells me is wrong in holding this view.

      Otherwise, maybe the best thing here is just to see my view as the flourish of a local pastor trying to reach his congregation with a view that expresses the journey of faith, and allows them to identify in with the story of a great saint who didn’t always have everything figured out, and was not omniscient at all times about how the plan of God would unfold, but believed anyway, and gave his life for God. Not a bad story.

      Take it or leave it. If you prefer to see a John the Baptist who never wondered, who had no questions at all but saw all things perfectly and was only trying to encourage his wavering disciples, Fine, you’re in good company. But something in me is more comfortable taking the text in a way that I see as more in accord and in context with its straight-forward, meaning. We’re both loyal sons of the Church here, unless I am mistaken regarding the non-existence of any statements of the Magisterium requiring me accept what you and Fr. C et al say.

  19. Aquinas and Lapide, expounding upon the “great Patristic Tradition” flush out all of the possible interpretations from the internal evidence in the Scriptures, their primary source. It is called doing “theology as a whole” which does not just take one possible interpretation and run with it, but assesses the whole with the principle that “Scripture interprets Scripture.” This is evident from the commentaries I provided in the links. Aquinas would agree with you that there is not only one possible interpretation of any given passage (one of his main principles of interpretation) but he would interject that we should seek out the “best possible interpretation” based upon speculation merged with the history of tradition of interpreting that passage. This is his whole project for theology and why he has been considered the greatest theologian and doctor of the Church by the magisterium of the past two hundred years. He consolidated and sythesized what had come before like no other and then he proceeded to expound upon that Tradition and improve upon it when he could. One can simply read his treatment of the “Hypostatic Union” in ST III to get a glimpse of what this process entails, where Aquinas gathers the Patristic statements and the Chalcedonian statements and from this, places his own signature on the dogma of the two natures in Christ. This is one of the reasons why Thomism is on the rise again and why the Dominican Order (at least parts of it in the US) has vocations bursting at the seams. I suspect that after many years of the “fast food” diet of the “hermeneutic of discontinuity” that folks are needing some theological nutrition by way of going back to the “meat and potatoes” of the tradition of interpretation, with Aquinas at the high point (once again, not implying you at all in this Msgr. :)). I am just making my case for Aquinas’ authoritative interpretation of the text.

    His masterpiece of biblical commentary is on the Gospel of John. It is great that CUA just republished the three volume work a few years back.

    One again, we really are inspired by your posts . . . please continue to feed us as a good shepherd!

    Pax et bonum!

  20. My first thought when this reading was read on Sunday was that John the Baptist was perhaps suffering a spiritual desolation similar to other great saints before their death. When they feel a total absence of God , Like St. Therese. After reading this article it makes sense to me that when he was full of the spirit he recognized Jesus as the Son of God. Then in prison perhaps he was experiencing a desolation and all of the above questions could exacerbate any doubts.

  21. Wow!! Very interesting “back and forth”. Can’t help but wonder however what the time/effort/energy expended in these posts would have produced by extending a hand of love/compassion to even one brother/sister who is sufferng mentally/physically/emotionally or spiritually.

    1. I dunno, but life isn’t a zero sum game. I do the things you describe too, This blog doesn’t take that long and I can dictate answers when out for a walk etc. If your intention is to judge me or others for a poor use of time, I’d just answer, stay in your lane and leave those matters to God. You seem to be enunciating a kind of “poverty of Judas” argument.

  22. Your posts are great and it’s part of your mission for Christ. However, each or us is called to various methods of “preaching the gospel”. I personally spend far to little time and effort regarding theology so I’m not “pointing fingers” but rather making an observation based upon many decades of service within prisons, hospices and various countries. As a shepherd to those who follow your comments– I recommend some direction from you, i.e.possibly a specific post, regarding your insight regarding the “balance” between service and theology. Your “poverty of Judas” and “stay in your lane” comments directed at me seemed to be rather demeaning and judgmental. I hope it wasn’t intentional. One final thought–“Jesus said, come to me—” Matthew 11:28. You might agree this is the beginning point upon which all Christian theology is founded and without this choice by each of us all else might be considered simply philosophy, humanitarian and or just normal human interaction.

    1. Does it occur to you that your own comments fall short in this regard and are themselves demeaning and judgmental? Does it in no way occur to you that your comments are easily and plainly interpreted as a rebuke for spending time in blogging rather than does something more service oriented? For you say, Can’t help but wonder however what the time/effort/energy expended in these posts would have produced by extending a hand of love/compassion to even one brother/sister who is suffering mentally/physically/emotionally or spiritually. What else can you mean than what this plainly says, that my time or that of others here would be better spent elsewhere? Your use of the word “however” serves also to emphasize your tone of rebuke. And who are you to say that? I just finished a long day of meetings with couples and people doing what you say. So as for being demeaning and judgmental, physician heal yourself. If you’re looking for some direction from me as a shepherd, I can only say, based on your comments that you yourself come across as the very thing you criticize me and others for and that staying in your own lane and working your own issues remains solid advice in this matter.

  23. Bill from Denver, your comments are way out of line. You obviously do not understand the meaning of a theological discussion and they do not belong in this thread. Along with the corporal works of mercy the Church recommends doing the spiritual works of mercy, which is often carried out on these blogs . . . that’s right, conversions take place here because the Truth sets people free! BTW, one of the spiritual works of mercy is: admonishing the sinner . . . which the brave and bold Msgr. just did to you.

    Take note . . . and live the peace of the Christ Child this season.

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