Misunderstandings between family members, especially those that arise because of differing outlooks, can be a painful thing. (Just ask William and Harry!) So, taking steps to understand one another—of listening to each other, of talking things through and, sometimes, of letting go of a preciously held position—is always a good thing to do to avoid the pain of further unhappiness and drifting apart. We all know this, don’t we? Though it is also worth acknowledging that we all need to be reminded of it from time to time.
The cousins John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth certainly experienced this sense of grappling between family members in their relationship with each other. We’ve just picked up their story at the point where John had been thrown into prison. He had publicly called out the moral corruption of Herod, the puppet leader of the Israelite kingdom, as part of his mission to proclaim the nearness of God’s kingdom. It does not help with one’s safety to propose a rival kingship to the purported incumbent!
John knew that the promised kingdom of God, inaugurated through the coming of the Messiah, had something to do with his cousin Jesus. Afterall, when John baptised Jesus, he had heard God’s voice of anointing over him. But John’s sense of the promised Messiah was very much in the mould of a kingship of power and authority; one which would bring judgement upon the world and its sinful ways, much as he had sought to do in exposing the depravity of Herod.
John was not wrong in his sense of who the Messiah could be but had missed something of how the Messiah would take up his kingship. And because of what he was hearing of Jesus from prison, John was left in doubt about his own mission. (There is a tinge of sadness in this—John, alone in his cell, thinking his life’s work for God had been misplaced.)
Jesus, for his part, sought to reassure John by helping him see that the identity of the Messiah would be seen in how judgement would be exercised—in healing, in forgiveness, in bringing life to where there was previously death. This is power and authority, fit of a king, but it would not be one that imposed its rule over others, but by taking it on by the king himself. Jesus, indeed, had come to bring judgement upon the world, but he would do this by taking our judgement upon himself.
John had seen the anointing at the beginning of Jesus’ mission, but he had not seen the cross at its end. So Jesus gave his imprisoned and hesitant cousin that gift of sight, by pointing him to the promise of Isaiah: ‘Say to the faint hearted, “Courage! Do not be afraid… Look, your God is coming, …he is coming to save you.”’
At times in our lives, we can all go through periods of doubt like John—unsure of our footings, and unclear in our vision. And like John, this can seem to come when we are imprisoned by the struggles we face, or the competing identities we embrace. It is then that Jesus comes to us with his message that ‘the blind see again, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor.’
Main image: Andrei Rublev, St John the Baptist, 1408, tempura on panel.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli17 November 2023