First Reading Isaiah 35:1–6, 10
Psalm Psalm 146:6–10
Second Reading James 5:7–10
Gospel Matthew 11:2–11
Gospel – Matthew 3:1-12
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then 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,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Hearing the Word
The Liturgy of the Third Sunday of Advent shows that believers in all generations have experienced tensions between frustration and hope, and it provides sound advice on how to deal with this tension.
Isaiah of Jerusalem had every reason to complain. Living in the later part of the 7th century BC, the prophet saw his country ravaged by wars with the mighty Assyria, its population impoverished and enslaved, its Temple desecrated, its national hopes shattered and buried under the yoke of oppression. Engrossed in this troubled reality the prophet raises his eyes beyond and above this misery and contemplates the religious tradition of Israel which directs his attention to a different reality, that of God’s salvation, which he then poetically describes. First, Isaiah envisions that deserts and dry wilderness (Arabah) blossom. This is regeneration of life through the blessing of rain which God sends upon the arid land. Creation rejoices and celebrates the glory and splendour of the life-giver. Isaiah then calls on people to take notice of this restoration, be reassured and “do not fear”. Since God restores the desolate lands, how much more will he restore his people. Next, the prophet speaks of four infirmities which affect the people’s eyes, ears, legs, and tongues. In the context of the day, such afflictions would normally be perceived as resulting from wrongdoings committed by a person. Nonetheless, Isaiah states that even such defects of human nature will be remedied by God. Thus, together with creation, those healed and restored people will enter God’s holy mountain, Zion, in a joyful and celebratory procession to live in a new world without sorrow and pain.
The early Christians had every reason to complain. The Letter of James is attributed to James the Elder, called “the brother of the Lord”, who was martyred in 62 AD. Conflict, adversity, persecutions and martyrdom were a common experience for the early Christians. To compound the problem, those early believers ardently waited for the parousia, that is the return of Jesus as the glorified Lord to earth. They expected this return to occur within their lifetime. As years went by, they came to realise that Jesus was not going to return soon. Unfulfilled hopes and expectations easily lead to discouragement, which, in turn, leads to complaints and, eventually, conflict. James sought to save those he was addressing from these negative experiences. He warned Christians against falling into the trap of complaining about one another and judging others. Such attitudes destroy the unity in the community and bring judgement upon the very person who causes disagreements. He also makes a positive exhortation pointing to the attitudes which Christians should nourish, the chief of which is patience. Christian patience might be likened to that of a farmer waiting for harvest. The farmer trusts God to provide what is necessary at the right time, and to secure his well-being. James follows with an example of the prophets who frequently spoke in the context of hardship, persecution, and hopelessness. In the midst of those unfavourable circumstances they still faithfully delivered their message. Christians are called to imitate them through that patient endurance with which they need to wait for God’s salvific intervention which, despite all uncertainties, is sure to come because God does not fail to deliver on his promises.
John the Baptist also had reasons to complain. He had surely heard about the deeds of Jesus. Those deeds, as Jesus himself said, fulfilled the messianic prophecies of Isaiah, which we heard about in the first reading. Indeed, Jesus went beyond these prophecies, raising the dead and proclaiming the good news to the poor. It might well be that John, when posing the question to Jesus as to whether he is the awaited Messiah, had another prophetic oracle in mind found in Isaiah 61:1. In this oracle, Isaiah indicated that the Messiah will bring about “the release of the captives.” Yet here he was, John, still languishing in prison, with no signs or hope for release. Perhaps addressing this unfulfilled hope of John, Jesus spoke about the blessedness of those who “take no offence” at him. Saying this, Jesus implied that John must accept the Messiah on his own terms. The Messiah came to accomplish his purposes, not necessarily to cater to the hopes and needs of every individual, even those which were justified. These words directed to John were also addressed to the people of Jesus’ generation who expected the Messiah to be a Royal Davidic king who would restore the earthly kingdom of Israel. Many of the contemporaries of Jesus were scandalised” by him and his way of establishing God’s kingdom, namely by dying on the cross and opening the gates of the kingdom to all peoples. According to popular imagination, this was certainly not what the Messiah was supposed to do.
The Gospel passage continues with the highest praise that any individual in the NT received as Jesus praised John for his integrity and loyalty. John was a prophet and God’s messenger who fulfilled the prophecies of Malachi (3:1). In fact, he was the greatest human being ever born! Yet, his greatness as a human being and as the last of the OT prophets is surpassed by those who are privileged to be members of God’s kingdom. In this passage Matthew wanted to highlight the great privilege and infinite dignity that Christians enjoy because of what Jesus had accomplished for them. Because of that grace, the followers of Jesus stand above, but not apart from, all who preceded them, including the Old Testament prophets.
The liturgy of the third Sunday of Advent proclaims that God is supremely committed to his salvific work. Starting with Isaiah, the emphasis rests on God as Saviour who will restore his creation and his people to the state of security and well-being. Matthew reveals that Jesus is God’s agent of salvation. Because of what Jesus has accomplished, his followers can live with a firm assurance of the great dignity that has been bestowed on them, and of the even greater future that awaits them. The words of James serve as instruction on how to deal with the situation of difficulty and discouragement. He emphasises patience and endurance, while Matthew advocates trust in what God is doing. Secure in the certainty of God’s salvation believers have no reason to complain. Complaining will only weaken their Christian resolve and confidence. The proper attitude for the faithful, despite unfavourable circumstances, is to acknowledge that God the Saviour reigns forever. Confidently, therefore, believers can sing the song of praise and thanksgiving, together with the author of Psalm 146 who exclaimed, “The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!”
Listening to the Word of God
We all complain at times. Sometimes we have good reasons to do so, sometimes we do not. It seems that complaining is an integral part of human nature and our human condition. One dictionary defines complaining as an expression of dissatisfaction, pain, grief, misfortune that leads to a wide range of feelings such as anger, impatience, rage and at times violence. Many businesses have a “complaints desk” where customers voice their dissatisfaction at products or services rendered. On the internet we are constantly asked to complete surveys or questionnaires to express our complaints. So “complaint” has become an industry.
In some cases, complaining is necessary to bring to the notice of authorities violations of the rights of individuals and communities, or simply to point out things that are done wrongly. Even in our relationships, complaints have a role in alerting others to things done or said that hurt us or have negative impact on our lives. In politics, particularly after elections, parties complain about the results, with such complaints often leading to violence. In places of employment, employees also complain about unfair labour practices or poor wages. Thus, complaining has moved from being a “human thing” to a human rights issue. We have a right to complain and expect appeasement in response to our grievances. Such understanding of complaining certainly has its place, and we have seen some good come out of it. However, as in the case of conflict and violence that complaints cause, some negative results can also come.
As important as complaints are in legitimate cases, they can also lead to the loss of hope, with all the tragic outcomes that result from it. In our spiritual lives, complaints arise when our prayers are not answered immediately, or if they are answered in a different way from what we wanted or expected. The Psalms offer examples of complaints of this nature. However, we also must note that Psalms never end with complaint. Rather, through expressions of patience and perseverance they aim to lead to deeper faith, and advocate patient waiting for God’s wise and timely intervention. Without faith in God’s love and purpose, in his faithfulness and wisdom, complaints and disillusion with life can lead to a loss of faith, bitterness, anger and actions that are detrimental to us. Patience is a virtue that is associated with faith and hope. Notice that the Psalms teach us that we may complain, but we bring our complaints to God as John the Baptist did. It is there that we hear words of hope. Such an attitude comes from the virtue of patience and faith which leads us to look at our life, plans and desires in a different way. This attitude is well summed up in an African proverb, “instead of complaining that the rosebush is full of thorns be happy that the thorn bush has a rose.”
Write down one main complaint that you have in your life in relation to the following: your own qualities, your family, your parish, your nation, your relationship with God.
Do you harbour resentment and consistently complain against anybody? Why?
Response to God
Offer your complaints to God in a prayer. Pray the serenity prayer included below and discern what you can change and what you need to patiently accept.
Response to your World
Following the self-examination, decide which of your complaints are legitimate and which come from your own impatience, laziness or mistakes.
As a community, what can we do to address the negative situations we face, and how can we move beyond them?
“Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things that I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen