The Scripture readings for this week have references to the messianic traditions that circulated in the Hebrew faith culture. Taking the reading from Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 11:2-11) as a focus for our remarks, we see the authenticating signs that Jesus used to establish his messianic identity for the disciples of John the Baptist. Those signs echo the signs in Isaiah’s oracles about the restoration of Zion. (Is 35:1-6, 10)
Many take our passage from Isaiah which now appears among oracles of First Isaiah (Is 1-39) to be a misplaced text that really belongs in Second Isaiah (Is 40-56). Second Isaiah preached during the Babylonian Exile to keep alive interest in the glories of God’s creation and to encourage the faith of the faltering exiles who needed new hope in God’s impending deliverance.
In the Hebrew concept of messianism, a great leader from the line of David would bring peace, protection, and productivity to the nation of Israel. Thus there is emphasis on physical well-being such as health to the ailing, fertility to the land, and joy and gladness to the ransomed people. That concept of salvation had a temporal character that would banish pain and sorrow and bring about abundance and peace to people who had suffered want and oppression.
Those ideas remained alive even in Jesus’ day. In fact, they even surface in our time. They are in contrast to the messianic character of Jesus’ teaching about his kingdom in another world where there would be no more sorrow, no more weeping, and no more suffering of any kind.
In addition, Matthew presents Jesus as preaching a glorious accolade of the Baptist. He was a prophet and more than a prophet. Using a version of a text from Malachi 3:1, Jesus describes him as his messenger. Then he says he is the greatest person born of woman. The praise came to completion in a kind of surprise saying, “Yet one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Mt 11:11)
That kind of preaching called people to a whole new way of thinking. It also may call us to a whole new way of thinking, too. The Letter of James is a gem of Hellenistic writing. It is more a sermon than a letter, though it is in the form of a letter. It shows that the preacher rejects an empty faith in God (Jas 2:18-19), and calls us to be patient until the coming of the Lord. (Jas 5:7) As Paul taught, so does James instruct us how to behave in the time until the Lord comes. Live as good Christians; love one another. Those who are called happy are those who are steadfast in their faith. The content is both instructive and encouraging.
Our Psalm response resounds with some of the same themes as our readings, and at the same time it is especially lovely. Happy are those whose hope is in the Lord who keeps faith forever. The Lord gives sight to the blind and lifts up the downtrodden. The Lord loves the righteous and watches over those in need.
“The Lord will reign forever. Praise the Lord.” (Ps 146)
Betty Jane Lillie, S.C.