|St. John the Baptist in prison|
Gaudete Sunday, Matthew 11:2-11
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
It is not at all uncommon (or surprising) to find modern(ist) biblical scholars claim that St. John the Baptist, the precursor of the Messiah, doubted whether Jesus is truly the Christ. Often, they will present their theory in highly psychological terms: John, in prison, nearing his execution, wonders whether his life has any real meaning or perhaps if he has misunderstood his vocation. In this distressing state of existential doubt, the Baptist questions the Lord regarding whether he truly is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
These biblical scholars present John the Baptist as a reed swaying in the wind, blown about by the happenings of the world and the persecution he know faces. But Jesus said, “This is the one about whom it is written: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.” No, St. John was not a reed swayed by the wind, he was a prophet and more than a prophet – and he rejoiced to see the fulfillment of the Promise.
Why did St. John send his disciples to question Christ Jesus?
St. John the Baptist most certainly knew that Jesus was the Messiah, for upon him he saw the Holy Spirit descending and remaining. St. John knew that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He did not hesitate, but testified openly that Jesus is the Christ. St. John was the dear friend of the bridegroom and he rejoiced to decrease as the Lord increased – hence, the Baptist sent his disciples (beginning with Andrew) to become followers of Christ.
Gregory the Great writes, “Did John not know him whom he had pointed out to others; or was he uncertain whether this was he, whom by foretelling, by baptizing, and by making known, he had proclaimed him to be he?” Jerome takes us forward, “Therefore he does not ask as being himself ignorant. But as the Savior asks where Lazarus is buried, in order that they who showed him the sepulcher might be so far prepared for faith, and believe that the dead was verily raised again – so John, about to be put to death by Herod, sends his disciples to Christ, that by this opportunity of seeing his signs and wonders they might believe on him, and so might learn through their master’s enquiry.” (Catena Aurea, Matthew 11: 2-6)
Just as John had given Christ the first disciples who were chosen to be apostles, so too he know sends the Lord other disciples. Instructing them to question the Lord regarding his mission, St. John the Baptist offers his followers to Christ that they might become true disciples of the Lord.
The Lord testifies to John’s faith
St. John Chrysostom tells us, “Sufficient had been now done for John’s disciples; they returned certified concerning Christ by the wonderful works which they had seen. But it behooved that the multitude also should be corrected, which had conceived many things amiss from the question of John’s disciples, not knowing the purpose of John in sending them [here, we recall the error of modernist scholars]. They might say, he who bare such witness to Christ, is now of another mind, and doubts whether this be he. Doth he this because he hath jealousy against Jesus? Has the prison taken away his courage? Or spake he before but empty and untrue words?”
The Lord knew well the heart of John, he knew that the Baptist did not doubt but only desired to confirm his disciples in Christ’s truth. Hence, Jesus defends St. John’s consistency in faith by comparing him to a reed swayed in the wind.
St. Jerome speaks in the person of Christ saying, “Was it for this ye went out into the desert to see a man like unto a reed, and carried about by every wind, so that in lightness of mind he doubts concerning him whom once he preached?” Chrysostom continues, “That John is not as a waving reed, yourselves have shown by going out unto the desert to him. Nor can any say that John was once firm, but has since become willful and wavering; for as some are prone to anger by natural disposition, other become so by long weakness and indulgence, so in inconstancy, some are by nature inconstant, some become so by yielding to their own humor and self-indulgence. But John was neither inconstant by natural disposition; this he makes clear by saying, What went ye out for to see, a reed shaken by the wind? Neither had he corrupted an excellent nature by self-indulgence, for that he had not served the flesh is shown by his raiment, his abode in the desert, his prison.”
Whence it is clear, from the divine testimony of Christ, that the Baptist did not doubt or slacken in his faith; for he is no reed swayed in the wind, but the new Elijah.
Another exegetical option
It should be noted that both Tertullian and Justin hold that St. John the Baptist did doubt whether Jesus was truly the Christ. This opinion, for the reasons given above, seems most unlikely.
Moreover, St. Gregory the Great and also (perhaps) St. Jerome hold that the Baptist truly questioned whether Christ was the one who would come. This does not imply that John doubted whether Jesus was the Messiah, but only whether he was the one who would come – meaning the one who would come into sheol to retrieve the souls of the just who waited in the Limbo of the Fathers. Thus (according to this theory), as John neared his own death, he sought consolation from Christ who would deliver all the just from the power of death.
However, Cornelius a’ Lapide (following the majority of the Fathers and Doctors) concludes that this opinion is improbable. Rather, it seems that John sent his disciples and asked Jesus whether he was the Messiah, not as doubting about our Lord, but because, being near death, he wished his hesitating disciples to be instructed concerning Jesus, that they might be led to accept him as the Christ. This is the opinion of saints Hilary, Chrysostom, and Cyril (among others).