The Baptist and the Rebuttal

Father Michael Najim
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Apparently the Baptist was a bit uneasy. Sitting in Herod’s prison, it seems John was tempted by doubts concerning Jesus. John was a fiery prophet. He was disciplined in self-denial. He was a decisive figure, drawing a line in the sand and predicting the imminent destruction of all who failed to repent. You were either in or you were out. What must have been his reaction then upon hearing that the Christ was dining with tax collectors and prostitutes? Or that he was becoming ritually unclean by touching lepers and corpses? Was this the Christ he was expecting?

John’s unease is apparent in this week’s gospel (Mt 11:2-11). Suffering in chains, a consequence of his intense moral preaching (specifically against Herod’s unlawful marriage), he hears of “the works of the Christ.” Perhaps snippets of the Sermon on the Mount are reported: “Blessed are the poor...blessed are the peacemakers...love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Hearing such words, and hearing of some of Jesus’ unorthodox practices, perhaps John asked himself “can this be the one who will clear the threshing floor and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire?” In a word, “is this the one whose coming I announced?” Troubled by doubts he sends a delegation to Jesus: “are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

How does Jesus respond? Jesus tells them to return and report to 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.” At the end of this litany of great works we almost want to hear Jesus ask wryly: “so, for whom else would you be looking?” In a sense, he does say it, but more forcefully: “and blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

This exchange between the Baptist and Jesus is a defining moment. In the Gospel there is always a tension between judgment and mercy, between condemnation and redemption. Jesus’ life and preaching does not dissolve that tension, rather he refines it further: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Mt 12:30). But, while this tension holds, Jesus reminds the Baptist (and us) that the Gospel is principally about healing, restoration, and new life.

Wherever the Gospel is preached authentically, “the desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom” (Is 35:1). Human flourishing is the fruit of true evangelization. The Gospel always offers an abundant life (Jn 10:10). Blessed is the one who takes no offense at it.