Are you he who is to come?

Anthony Zimmerman
For Catholicmind
October 11, 2004
Reproduced with Permission

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?" (Matt 11:2-3).

We ask: Did John really have doubts, or did he ask the question with tongue in cheek, to give Jesus an opportunity to correct the false ideas of John's own disciples? This is a quizzical passage that gave the celebrated greats among the Fathers of the Church to rise to great heights or rhetoric. For example, St. Jerome (d 420) volunteered that John, now in jail and about to die, wanted to know what he should tell the people in Scheol about Jesus, when he dies and goes there. But our hero St. Chrysostom(d 407) responded that what Jerome said is "ridiculous", not a nice word to use in reference to the scholarly Jerome.


And the reason of his seeking to know, namely, that he might preach Him there, [as alleged by Jerome] 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 (Harmony CD, commentary of Thomas on the Gospel of Matthew).

Here St. Thomas comes to the defense of Jerome, and of Gregory who had agreed with Jerome. In a gloss he explains that the purpose of John's supposed mission in Scheol after death was not to convert anyone who had died in sin, but just to provide information for the just there, who were all waiting for salvation by Christ. Thomas writes:

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 (Same CD).

Even if we think that Chrysostom gave an unjust thrashing to Jerome, we should remember that Jerome himself was not aloof to dipping his quill into vinegar. It is reported, for example, that Jerome was not impressed with the sometimes flowery oratory of St. Ambrose (d. 397), teacher of the great Augustine (d. 420). If memory serves me correctly, Jerome, in a weaker moment, called Ambrose "an ugly crow attempting to adorn himself with the brilliant feathers of a nightingale." May the Lord forgive him.

Back to our subject: was John, now in prison ignorant of the mission or Christ, or impatient, or was he employing a device to give Jesus a chance to correct the ideas of his own mistaken disciples? Incredibly, the International Bible Commentary sides with those who think that John himself was ignorant: "John's concern is that Jesus is not fulfilling the role he had expected" (p. 1289). Not at all, shout the great Fathers in unison. John was not ignorant, but his disciples needed correction, and that is why he sent two of them to Jesus to get things right, and then to straighten out the rest of John's disciples. A spirit of rivalry had arisen between the straight living and often fasting disciples of John, and the more relaxed living of the disciples of Jesus. John did not want to die with his disciples and those of Jesus at loggerheads, because his mission was to prepare sinners to eventually come to Jesus. That is why John sent the disciples to Jesus, and why Jesus gave the very answer that would most easily convince his disciples. As Jerome wrote: "He does not ask as being himself ignorant." St. Hilary (of Arles d.449?) agrees, and articulates essentially the explanation of the other greats of the golden age of the Fathers:

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 (Harmony CD).

With this in mind, let us take a close look at the astute reply of Jesus, who was evidently playing the game that John was subtly asking Him to engage in for the benefit of his own overly zealous disciples:

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" (Matt 11:4-6).

Note that Jesus did not tell John's disciples about the miracles He was performing. He invited them to just look and listen for themselves, and then to draw their own conclusions. He was doing all those things that the Prophet Isaiah had foretold: "Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy" (Isaiah 35:5-6 and elsewhere). What John's disciples see and hear should be proof to them that He is that Servant of the Lord, the true Messiah, as foretold in the scriptures. John's disciples should bring back the message to their community and to John that Jesus is doing exactly the things foretold about the Messiah in the Scriptures, and from that they should draw the proper conclusion. Only one admonition did Jesus finally give to John's disciples: "Take no offense at me," that is, don't be scandalized by what I am doing just because it does not meet your expectations.

Matthew does not tell us that John's disciples went back converted. We may imagine, though that, despite all, they did not join the band of the disciples of Jesus then and there. Strategically, Jesus had used the opportunity to deal with John's disciples just when the apostles were out of sight, on their first missions to other towns and villages. Thus the disciples of Jesus and of John would not meet and get into each other's hair. John the Baptist must have been pleased to hear the report which gave his disciples no new motivation that might increase tensions between the John's disciples and those of Jesus. Rather they had plenty to reflect on to eventually come to the conclusion that John was right in pointing them to Jesus rather than to himself. Now John could die in peace, satisfied that his mission to convert sinners, to have them do penance, and then to send them to Jesus was working. Eventually the many who had once followed John drifted over to Jesus, see e.g. Acts 8:25-26: "(Apollos) had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.

He began to speak boldly in the synagogue; but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately."

The answer that Jesus gave to John's disciples is indicative of His kindness. He went about doing good, for the blind receive their sight, and with eyesight faith in Jesus; the lame walk on sturdy feet again enriched now with a new determination to walk in the way of the Lord; the lepers are cleansed and their souls are filled with the splendor of the grace of God; the deaf hear with their ears and believe the message they receive with their minds; the dead are raised to life again, as Adam and Eve were restored to sanctifying grace after their sin; and the poor have good news brought to them, for the knowledge of the Lord fills the earth. Jesus works all these miracles even today through His ministers, tje sacraments, and the Church which is His Mystical Body.

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 (Matt 11:7-11).

Evidently Jesus was fond of John, His cousin, whom He had made joyful while still in the womb of his mother Elizabeth. Artists like to associate the two as playmates, and that may very well have been true. Because believing Israelite folks visited the temple in Jerusalem at the appointed times of the year, it is easily imaginable that relatives and cousins made it a point to meet at designated places and have happy family reunions.

I always had a hard time trying to understand how the least of the disciples of the kingdom was greater than John the Baptist. There are various explanations but what satisfies me best is what St. Augustine and St. Jerome propose, namely that Jesus is here referring to those who have already died and have entered into eternal glory in heaven (see Harmony CD). The saints there, who see God face to face, have knowledge and goodness which is incomparably greater than even the towering knowledge and sweet goodness of any mortal on earth. We look forward, then, to a quantum leap of greatness in ourselves when we shall pass through the portals made of pearl and on into the bright lights of heaven itself. Let our imagination soar at the thought. We will have more wisdom than Solomon had during his mortal life, more science than Einstein ever generated, more musical talent than Mozart and Beethoven, put on a better face than Mono Liza, outdistance the Olympic gold medalists, and swing a bat better than Babe Ruth. Yes, we will be truly blessed in heaven. May thy kingdom come.