This coming Sunday is the 3rd Sunday in Advent, lectionary cycle A, and again John the Baptist features prominently in the gospel text. Where last week we encountered him as the herald of the Messiah, this week John has been arrested and is jailed. Before moving into the study, let’s consider the scriptural context of this gospel.
A key phrase in the first verse of the reading is the “works of the Christ” (Mt 11:2). The works have been described in chapters 5–10 and have provoked different responses from different groups. These responses, most of which consist of misunderstanding if not outright rejection, are examined in chapters 11–12, and explained in the parables of chapter 13. Further examples of the response to Jesus will occur in chapters 14–16, until the true response is found in Peter’s confession in 16:13–20, which will bring the second main part of Matthew’s Gospel to its climax. This is the thread which runs through these chapters. Through them we are led from a view of Jesus as others saw him to the true confession of him as Messiah which eluded most of his contemporaries, conditioned as they were by erroneous or inadequate ideas of the Messiah.
More immediately, this simple passage marks a transition. Chapter 11 begins with: “When Jesus finished giving these commands to his twelve disciples, he went away from that place to teach and to preach in their towns” (Mt 11:1). With this one verse, Matthew signals the end of the missionary discourse (Mt 10). There is no follow on mention, nothing said about the disciples’ actual mission or their return (as in Luke 9). Matthew keeps the spotlight on Jesus as he continues his work for the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew’s expression; Luke uses Kingdom of God). What has continuity are the themes of unbelief and rejection that were so prominent in the missionary discourse. But as we move forward we are given more information about Jesus’ identity as the Messiah (11:1–6), the Wisdom of God (11:25–30), and the Servant of God (12:15–21).
Image credit: The Sacrament of Ordination (Christ Presenting the Keys to Saint Peter), c. 1636-40, by Nicholas Poussin, Public Domain