240. A Generous King (John 1:19-28)
“God’s providence of mercy, having determined to save in the last days the world which was perishing, foreordained the salvation of all nations in Christ.” - Pope St. Leo the Great
John 1:19-28: This is how John appeared as a witness. When the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ he not only declared, but he declared quite openly, ‘I am not the Christ.’ ‘Well then,’ they asked ‘are you Elijah?’ ‘I am not,’ he said. ‘Are you the Prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ So they said to him, ‘Who are you? We must take back an answer to those who sent us. What have you to say about yourself?’ So John said, ‘I am, as Isaiah prophesied: a voice that cries in the wilderness: Make a straight way for the Lord.’ Now these men had been sent by the Pharisees, and they put this further question to him, ‘Why are you baptizing if you are not the Christ, and not Elijah, and not the prophet?’ John replied, ‘I baptize with water; but there stands among you – unknown to you – the one who is coming after me; and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap.’ This happened at Bethany, on the far side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.
Christ the Lord John the Evangelist (the writer of this Gospel) had to counteract a misconception that lingered for a long time among the early Christian communities. For more than a hundred years after Christ’s resurrection, pockets of John the Baptist’s disciples continued to claim and preach that the Baptist himself was the true Messiah. Correcting this mistake is one of the minor motifs of John’s Gospel. In this first chapter, the Gospel writer makes abundantly clear that John is not the Messiah. The inquirers query him point blank. They ask him if he is the Messiah, and he says no; they ask him if he is the Prophet promised long ago by Moses (and often identified with the promised Messiah), and he says no; they ask him if he is Elijah (who was supposed to come again to announce the Messiah’s arrival, but whom some thought would be the Messiah), and again John denies it, lest they misunderstand. Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the Prophet greater than any prophet, the One who came to set all things right – he alone, and no one else. John had clear and distinct ideas about Jesus. Do we?
The bickering about John the Baptist’s identity may seem like an anachronistic squabble, but if it were, the Holy Spirit would not have included it in the Gospels. In fact, Christ’s disciples fall into the same kind of bickering all the time. We are always taking sides and arguing among ourselves about which preacher or bishop or religious order or pious group is better than another. How happy this makes the devil! The mature Christian knows that there is one Lord whom we all are meant to serve, and if we hang our hat on anything else, it’s due to our own pride, vanity, or narrow-mindedness.
Christ the Teacher The “priests and Levites” had charge of Jerusalem’s Temple worship. John came from a family of priests, so it was only natural for them to come and find out why he – one of their own coterie – was acting so abnormally and making such a stir among the people. The Pharisees were members of the ruling body of Israel, the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin took charge of reining in false prophets, so they sent a delegation to investigate this new rabble-rouser. Both groups who questioned John listened to his message only through the filter of their personal agendas, and both groups missed the point. Their own preconceived notions impeded their acceptance of God’s word spoken through John.
How often we fall into the same trap! We take refuge in our own exaggerated sense of self-sufficiency and sit in judgment over the Church’s teaching. In many ways, we are trained to do this. Humility, simplicity, faith – these essential Christian virtues are in scant supply at most institutes of higher learning; we prefer to make truth conform to our own wishes rather than adjust our lives to the demands of truth. God “never ceases to draw man to himself,” as the Catechism says (#27), but man (and that includes all of us) tends to resist the tug. From now on, let’s not.
Christ the Friend Generous kings hoard neither their wealth nor their privileges; they multiply and distribute their royal abundance, extending their friendship to all who will welcome it. Christ is a generous King, offering every man and woman his friendship and renewing the offer each day. He sent John the Baptist to announce his arrival, generously giving him a role in building up the Kingdom. In the same way, he has entrusted the defense and expansion of his Kingdom to the Church and therefore to each of us as members of the Church. Just as he gave John the honor and responsibility to announce his coming, so he gives us the chance to spread his reign. Ever since our baptism we have been members of his royal court, and from the moment of our confirmation, we accepted our appointment as ambassadors of the Eternal King. We have nothing to fear, because our natural powers did not earn this honor (it was a gift of grace), and our natural powers alone will not win success (Christ’s grace is at work in and through us). He has involved us so intimately in his plan (in fact, we are his plan) because he wants our friendship, and friends share their most important occupations. His consists in rescuing his lost sheep.
Christ in My Life I want to be a true Christian, Lord. I want to follow you. Anyone who is trying to follow you and spread your Kingdom is my ally, not my adversary – even if they use methods I may not prefer or emphasize different aspects of your message than I do. I want to be an agent of unity and charity in your family of believers. Teach me to curb my tongue, and to open my heart as wide as you have opened yours…
How can I take away my filter of subjective prejudices and half-baked ideas in order to hear your voice loud and clear? How can I wipe away the film of preconceived opinions that are clouding my mental vision without my realizing it? I can’t. I need your grace to come and cleanse my heart and my mind. You can do it, Lord. You can cut through the grime. Give me a new heart and a new mind, full of your light and your love…
St. John the Baptist, pray for me. I too have been given a role in Christ’s Kingdom, just as you were. I am glad to have something to do that can please him and deepen our friendship. With your prayers, protect and guide me as I strive to fulfill my life’s mission. With your example, help me to see God’s providential hand in all the events and people that swirl around me, so that I may always be faithful to whatever he asks of me…
PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.
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