By: Fr. James Gross
A middle-aged woman whose children are graduated from high school spends every day at a monotonous job with no prospect of a promotion, and thinks to herself, “There has to be more to life than this.” A young man finds himself drifting along through life, working during the week and partying hard on the weekends, and thinks, “There has to be more to life than this.” A young woman from a wealthy family coasts through classes at an elite school and an abundance of luxuries and thinks, “There has to be more to life than this.”
It’s an age-old question, and some of you may feel as though it applies to yourselves right now. As human beings we search for meaning and satisfaction. We just know deep inside that it’s meant to be. But what do we do to meet those needs? How do we make sure that what we’re pursuing doesn’t end up destroying us?
Many of the people who tracked down John the Baptist were searching for something more to life. Here was a man who was speaking to the very center of their hearts: What can I do about the burden of my sin? What is the best way to live my life? How can I be strong even when I perceive such weakness in myself? John was passionate about all those things. His demeanor was anything but soothing or affirming. He sounded like a radical and looked the part even more. But John cared about the big questions in life. He never proposed a quick fix that involved escaping from the human condition. He held out firm hope that God would send an “anointed one,” a Messiah, who would redeem our frail humanity. Although John was the appointed forerunner, the one to come after him was so great that he couldn’t carry his sandals. He had to decrease, and the Messiah would have to increase.
When he preached in the wilderness, John was like a blowtorch, but his was a limited mission. John found his mission hampered even more when King Herod threw him in prison. When Herod chose to take his brother’s wife as his own in an adulterous fling, John confronted him about it both publicly and privately. Desperate to retain the kingship, Herod treated this bit of spiritual direction as an affront and an act of political disobedience.
Sometimes we presume that everyone in the time of the Gospels anticipated exactly what would happen, as though everything was pre-determined. Obviously that’s not true. John expected that Jesus would bring more of the same ominous predictions about the judgment of God being like the unquenchable fire burning off the chaff or the orchard owner swinging his ax at the rotten trees. But it wasn’t quite turning out that way. John was convinced that he received his message from God and he was sure that he got it right. While behind bars, John couldn’t witness for himself what was happening “out in the field.” And so we come to today’s Gospel, and the visit his friends pay to Jesus and the Apostles to figure out what’s going on.
In several places in the Gospels, Jesus uses the cliché, “by their fruits you will know them.” In other words, the evidence of one’s character is found in what results come from their actions. What was Jesus’ evidence? Miracles! Those with leprosy are cleansed, the blind can see, the paralyzed walk again, and even some who have died were brought back to life! No one else was able to do such things. We try to capture a sense of that joy and wonder of the people of Palestine by the use of rose-colored vestments at this weekend’s masses.
But there’s more to it that the healings and wondrous signs. All these people experienced exclusion from families and towns because of their infirmities. They didn’t rank as equals, although their given maladies were the only difference between themselves and everyone else. Jesus declared to them all, “God is your Father, too. He does not desire to exclude you from His family.”
Here’s how I like to describe it. John’s emphasis was to shrink the list. He weeded out all the pretenders and challenged “casual believers” to take their faith in God more seriously, if they wanted to be on board with what God was doing in their midst. Jesus, on the other hand, caused the list to grow, inasmuch as the hopeless—the blind, the lame, the ill—had found hope in him. John was all about chasing people away from evil and proclaiming a baptism of repentance. Jesus then drew them in and steered them to the Truth.
Naturally Jesus spoke very forcefully about the principles of living a life of holiness. How often, when someone would ask him a question, would Jesus answer by saying, “You know the commandments, don’t you?” But suddenly, all sorts of people for the first time in their lives really believed that they had a place in the Kingdom of God. The Church expresses her identity most fully in her defense of the dignity of the poor and needy of this world.
This visit from John’s friends leads Jesus to address the crowds with this beautiful little discourse: “What did you go out to the desert to see?” His attitude is playful here, as he jokes with the people. “Why go through the trouble to go there and see a cattail blowing in the breeze—you could do that anywhere? Were you looking for some dignitary—why would they be in the desert in the first place?” All those listening to Jesus who first sought out John at the Jordan River began answering the question in their own minds. “We went out there because the path we used to be on led us in circles. We went out there because there had to be more to life than what we had known. We went out there to learn about God’s plan for us.”
Jesus ends by saying, “among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Here Jesus is pointing out the difference between the time before Christ and the time of the Church. John stood at the gates of heaven but could not enter because the gates were closed. Now they are open because of the sacrificial death of Jesus, so the least member of the Church, through baptism and grace, is better off than John was. That’s a powerful idea to carry with us today.
Jesus Christ is the answer to what we really, deeply want. He is the one people are searching for, whether they know it or not. We know we can find him right here; let us not desert him.