Things aren’t always as they seem, so the saying goes. In fact, this saying goes back to the famous Greek philosopher, Plato. The full saying reads: “things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many; the intelligence of a few perceives what has been carefully hidden.” Plato was writing some three hundred years before Christ. Yet the truth of his claim is picked up in this week’s Gospel as Matthew presents a dialogue of discovery between Jesus and John the Baptist.
John the Baptist had been preaching about the coming of the long awaited Messiah. According to John, the Messiah would come with retribution and vengeance. These words most likely come from the prophet Isaiah who we read in the First Reading this coming Sunday. “Look your God is coming, vengeance is coming, the retribution of God, he is coming to save you!” (Isaiah 35:4). It would appear that John the Baptist had an expectation that God would come to us with an agenda of retribution, rewarding the afflicted and punishing the culprits. But all is not what it seems. Jesus’ arrival does not bring the long awaited retribution. Instead, Jesus seems to suspend judgement and rather enact mercy and compassion.
Listen to the reply that Jesus sends to John the Baptist when he asks the question, “Are you the one who is to come, or have we got to wait for someone else?” Jesus replies: “the blind see again, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised to life and the Good News is proclaimed to the poor; and happy the one who does not lose faith in me.”
In the person of Jesus, God has visited God’s people with healing power, freeing them with forgiveness and filling them with hope for a new future where no one is left behind. The retribution of God is suspended. Jesus leaves God’s judgement for the future. For now, all are called to the world of mercy and healing, righting wrongs and paving the way forward for a more inclusive and just future.
The call of the gospel is no different today. Human beings, like John the Baptist, tend to want to call for blood. They want to see wrong doers punished, law breakers pay for their crimes, bullies expelled and offenders removed. I think that God wants justice too. But it seems that God’s way is to overwhelm human beings with mercy and compassion. Even on the cross, he refuses to play the usual game of seeking vengeance on those who are killing him. Instead the words of forgiveness ring out from the cross when he is dying, “forgive them Father, they know not what they are doing”.
This third week of Advent exposes us further to the God to whom we call out “come!” He is not the God who will bring retribution and judgement, so it seems. He will come to complete the work of justice born of mercy and compassion. Things are not always as they seem.
By Fr Brendan Reed