Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent
Luke 7:18b-23 (Matthew 11:2-6)
At that time, John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” When the men came to the Lord, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?’”Luke 7:18-20
Was the Forerunner expressing a doubt about Jesus’ identity? The question from John’s prison cell has vexed interpreters since the time of the early Church and responses have fallen on both sides.
If the question did not arise from real doubt in the Baptist, interpreters have inclined to consider it a “fictive doubt.”1 The question becomes a means of strengthening the faith of John’s disciples in Jesus, “the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:27). St. Jerome appeals to the episode of the raising of Lazarus in which Jesus asked, “Where have you laid him?” (John 11:34) to support this thesis. As Jesus did not inquire with a doubting heart, neither did the Baptist, Jerome argues.2
The most common interpretation in modern times is to recognize “John’s real doubt, hesitation, or surprise that Jesus was not turning out to be the kind of messiah that he expected.”3 Among the Church Fathers, Tertullian alone attributed real doubt to the Baptist, explaining that the Holy Spirit had only gifted him with partial knowledge for the purpose of preparing the way of the Lord.4
Both groups of interpreters have one thing in common: the desire to portray genuine faith. The majority of patristic commentators and their followers, minus Tertullian, found any hint of wavering faith in the Baptist inconsistent with the iconic image of the heroic saint and prophet. Can doubt enter the mind of one who earlier declared, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29)? And further, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit.’ Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God” (John 1:32-34). The underlying assumption is that doubt and despondency have no place in the heroic journey of faith.
Critics of this view find the opposite to be more authentic:
Scripture never presents the saints as ideally faultless, and therefore with holy truthfulness never conceals any sign of their imperfection or weakness. Nothing is more natural than that the Great Baptist—to whom had been granted but a partial revelation—should have felt deep anguish at the calm and noiseless advance of a Kingdom for which, in his theocratic and Messianic hopes, he had imagined a very different proclamation. Doubtless too his faith like that of Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), of Job in his trials (Job 3:1), and of Jeremiah in prison (Jeremiah 20:7), might be for a moment drowned by the tragic briefness, and disastrous eclipse of his own career; and he might hope to alleviate by this message the anguish which he felt when he contrasted the joyous brightness of our Lord’s Galilean ministry with the unalleviated gloom of his own fortress-prison among the black rocks at Makor. ‘If Jesus be indeed the promised Messiah,’ he may have thought, ‘why am I, His Forerunner, suffered to languish undelivered,—the victim of a wicked tyrant?’ The Baptist was but one of those many glorious saints whose careers God, in His mysterious Providence, has suffered to end in disaster and eclipse that He may shew us how small is the importance which we must attach to the judgment of men, or the rewards of earth. “We fools accounted his life madness, and his end to be without honour: how is he numbered among the children of God, and his lot is among the saints!” Wis 5:20. We may be quite sure that “in the fiery furnace God walked with His servant so that his spirit was not harmed, and having thus annealed his nature to the utmost that this earth can do, He took him hastily away and placed him among the glorified in Heaven.”5
The bare text of Scripture rarely supplies insight into the subjectivity from which statements and questions arise. Did the imprisoned John calmly face his execution and send his disciples to Jesus in order to transition them to the one “who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me” (John 1:30)? Or did he languish in the darkness and silence of his dungeon wondering, “Where were the axe and fan and the holy wind and fire of judgment?”6
In the end, the full subjectivity of other persons is inaccessible to all except the divine mind. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, not even the angels can read other minds, for “what is proper to God does not belong to the angels.”7
Whatever was John’s state of mind in Herod’s prison, Jesus commended him as the greatest of the prophets born of women, a passage which immediately follows his response to the Baptist’s question. “Yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he,” Jesus continued, indicating an order of grace and glory far surpassing anything attainable in this world (Luke 7:28).8
Jesus also paired himself with John in the figure of children in the marketplace calling out, “We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We sang a dirge, but you did not weep” (Luke 7:32). John and Jesus both died unjustly, the Precursor paving the way for the Christ who ultimately conquered sin and death.
The variety of interpretations of John’s question from prison leads to a topic deeper than exegetical conclusions, namely, what is faith? Does faith mean never doubting, faltering, or wavering for a moment? Does it mean that moments of special grace cannot be followed by moments of intense darkness?
Scripture does not flinch from portraying real struggles with faith. Peter, James, and John ran away from Gethsemane after witnessing the glory of the Transfiguration (Mark 14:50). Peter, the recipient of the Father’s direct enlightenment concerning Jesus’ true identity (Matthew 16:16), denied Jesus three times. Mary Magdalene failed to recognize the “gardener” at the empty tomb (John 20:15). Thomas disbelieved the testimony of the other disciples about the risen Christ (John 20:25).
The strongest proof of the vulnerability of human nature in the face of trial and tribulation is the life of Jesus himself who cried out from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
If the Son of God himself felt abandoned by the Father in his humanity though he was inseparable from the Godhead, the weakness of passible human nature is revealed. Christ’s sinlessness did not shield him from the depths of human suffering and sorrow. Immaculate Mary, whose heart was “pierced” by a sword, shared in her Son’s suffering (Luke 2:35).
In these supreme examples of union with the Father’s will during the darkest hour in history, it is possible to admit that the journey of faith can have moments of testing even to the point of feeling forsaken. The God-man Jesus Christ conquered his own desire to avoid the Cross with the resolve, “not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42; Matthew 26:39).
Faith does not doubt the objective and fundamental goodness of God in the midst of trial. “I AM WHO AM” burns with an unquenchable fire of Love at the heart of all existence, even if no creature exists to experience it. Christ who lives in us always leads us to the Father in the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who has loved me and given himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). Feelings of abandonment may come, but the will remains rooted in the Father’s unchanging love.
1 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX), Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1981, p. 664:
John’s question has been interpreted by commentators from the patristic period on (at least to the Reformation) as a fictive doubt: The imprisoned John used this device to strengthen and improve the understanding of his own disciples about Jesus. So, e.g. John Chrysostom (Hom. xxxvi in Matt. 11:2; PG, 57, 413-415); Augustine (Sermones de scripturis 66.3-4; PL 38. 432-433); Hilary (Comm. in Matt. 11:2; PL, 9, 978-979).
The Pulpit Commentary’s more comprehensive list of interpreters in this vein also includes Jerome, Ambrose and Theophylact among the Fathers, and Calvin, Beza, Melancthon, Stier and Bishop Wordsworth among the Protestants.
2 St. Jerome on Matthew 11:3 in The Catena Aurea of St. Thomas Aquinas.
3 Fitzmyer, p. 664. The New American Bible (Revised Edition) also supports this view. See footnotes to Matthew 11:2-6.
4 Tertullian, Against Marcion, Book IV, chapter 18:
But John is offended when he hears of the miracles of Christ, as of an alien god. Well, I on my side will first explain the reason of his offense, that I may the more easily explode the scandal of our heretic. Now, that the very Lord Himself of all might, the Word and Spirit of the Father, was operating and preaching on earth, it was necessary that the portion of the Holy Spirit which, in the form of the prophetic gift, had been through John preparing the ways of the Lord, should now depart from John, and return back again of course to the Lord, as to its all-embracing original. Therefore John, being now an ordinary person, and only one of the many, was offended indeed as a man, but not because he expected or thought of another Christ as teaching or doing nothing new, for he was not even expecting such a one. Nobody will entertain doubts about any one whom (since he knows him not to exist) he has no expectation or thought of. Now John was quite sure that there was no other God but the Creator, even as a Jew, especially as a prophet. Whatever doubt he felt was evidently rather entertained about Him whom he knew indeed to exist but knew not whether He were the very Christ.
5 Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, Luke 7:19.
6 Expositor’s Greek Testament, Matthew 11:3.
7 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, 57, 4.
8 St. Ambrose writes in his Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 5.110:
If Christ is a prophet, then how is John greater than all prophets? Surely we do not deny that Christ is a prophet? On the contrary, I maintain both that the Lord is the Prophet of prophets and that John is greater than all, but of those born of a woman, not of a virgin. He was greater than those to whom he could be equal in the condition of birth. Another nature is not to be compared with human generations. There can be no comparison between man and God, for each is preferred to his own. There could be no comparison of John with the Son of God, so that he is thought to be below the angels.
From Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Luke, Arthur A. Just Jr., editor, and Thomas C. Oden, general editor (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 122.