The Blind and the Lame
On the Late Show the other night, Stephen Colbert did a new bit that he called “Norm or Law?” Recent news reports have revealed that Donald Trump has chosen to forgo the daily intelligence briefing that Presidents-elect have traditionally taken part in during the transitional period, and Colbert decided to look at other unorthodox decisions Trump has made to see which of them simply break precedent and which ones border on illegality. In other words, which actions are merely norms that most people in his position have followed, and which decisions are governed by laws.
The tradition of attending the intelligence briefing, for example, is considered by most experts a "best practice,” but no law mandates that the President-elect do it. The same is true of the tradition of candidates’ releasing their income tax records for public scrutiny—it’s a norm, not a law. Trump’s ambiguous position on whether he will maintain his business operations while in the White House, however, is governed by a law. The Emoluments Clause of the Constitution explicitly prohibits the Chief Executive from engaging in business affairs that might constitute a conflict of interest.
It was a comedy piece, of course, so Colbert was mining it for laughs, but it was also illuminating. For one thing, it demonstrated the many ways Trump has already broken precedent in the month since the election, but it also made me think about how we tend to blur the lines between what is recommended and what is mandated. In how many other areas of our lives do we assume that established practices are requirements when they actually are not?
This passage from Matthew's gospel may indicate that same dynamic at work in the first century. John the Baptist, from his prison cell in the fortress of Machaerus, is confused by the reports he hears about Jesus. As we saw last week, John himself predicted the imminent coming of God, or at least God’s representative the Messiah, in judgment, using the violent images of an axe and unquenchable fire. He was a fire-and-brimstone preacher if there ever was one; the sum total of his message was, “Repent! Get right with God or get tossed in the furnace with the other dry sticks!”
John may have leaned more heavily on the repentance angle than others, but in many respects his understanding was consistent with the popular notion that the Messiah would be a king like David—a righteous king who would release the people from their oppression under foreign overlords and restore the glory of the kingdom of Israel. His coming would herald a new age of peace and prosperity, and Jerusalem would finally be in truth what the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures had always declared it to be: the center of the universe, the navel of the world.
But Jesus didn't resemble this figure much at all. He did teach resistance to the powers, but his insistence on nonviolence was off-putting. He emphasized justice for the marginalized, but he seemed to lack John’s fiery zeal for punishment of sinners. John couldn’t help thinking that when it came to the really important stuff, the axe-at-the-root-of-the-trees-and-unquenchable-fire stuff, the conquering king stuff, Jesus was sorely lacking. He consistently deflected questions about whether or not he was the Messiah, as though he wasn’t really sure himself.
Jesus had come on the scene after John’s arrest, preaching a simple message that in some ways reiterated John’s favorite themes—“Repent, for the reign of God is coming near”—but from that point he took a radically different tack. John was preparing a redeemed people to retake the land of promise—his followers entered the Jordan from the east, went through the waters of baptism, and came out the other side, just as Joshua’s armies had done. His was a ministry of renewal in advance of God’s wrathful salvation.
Jesus, on the other hand, seemed content to exercise a ministry of compassion and healing. He spent a lot of time cleansing lepers, casting out demons, and preaching don’t-worry-be-happy sermons about birds and flowers, but where was the winnowing fork, John wondered? Where was the axe? If the reports were true, Jesus had even been known to grant forgiveness without demanding repentance. He ate and drank with tax collectors and had gone so far as to heal the slave of a Roman centurion, the very manifestation of Empire in their midst! What was this guy thinking?
John had harbored such high hopes for this Jesus; had even hesitated to baptize him when he came to him at the Jordan, sensing then and there his inherent authority, even superiority. Having always prided himself on his spiritual sensitivity, John thought he recognized in this nondescript laborer from lower Galilee the long-awaited Messiah in disguise.
Now, however, he’s not so sure. The more he hears from the messages his disciples are able to bribe his guards to deliver, and from the scuttlebutt those same guards are all too happy to share with him, the less certain he feels about this Jesus. Perhaps he was too hasty in his assessment. This guy just doesn’t seem to fit the bill.
So he sends a couple of his disciples to Jesus with a question. A fateful question. A heart-in-your-throat kind of question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (v. 3). Are you indeed the Messiah, or have you got our hopes up only to dash them again as so many others before you have done? Was I wrong about you?
John’s problem is that he assumes his picture of the Messiah is not a norm but a law, to use Stephen Colbert’s categories. It is not only an opinion about what the Messiah should be like, it is adamantine fact. The characteristics he expects the Messiah to bear are not options but requirements. John’s mistake is to refuse God the freedom to do something new, something unexpected, something shockingly iconoclastic. John has a bumper sticker on his Datsun that reads, “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it,” to which God replies, “Not so fast, buddy.”
It’s not as if Jesus is breaking every precedent, after all. His actions are consistent with the scriptural witness, as he points out in his typically enigmatic reply to John. He says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me" (vv. 4–6).
Jesus can be pretty frustrating at times. He seems constitutionally unable to give a straight answer to a simple question. But there is a method to his maddeningness here. He gently points out to John that he has too willingly succumbed to tunnel vision. By telling the messengers to bear witness to Jesus’s activities, which he helpfully enumerates for them, he encourages John to expand his view. Look at other parts of the tradition than just the ones that support your preconceived notions. Don’t try to shackle God by appealing to some parts of the Bible and ignoring others. Don’t presume to place limits on what God can do, period—no matter what has come before.
One of the passages that Jesus's response points to is today’s reading from Isaiah 35. Another of Isaiah’s optimistic visions of restoration—either a return from exile or the final consummation of the age, it doesn’t really matter which—this oracle describes a future paradise the faithful remnant will enjoy under God’s rule. “The wilderness and the dry land will be glad,” the prophet declares, “the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing” (vv. 1–2). He goes on to instruct his listeners to encourage those who find it hard to maintain hope: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God…. He will come and save you” (vv. 3–4).
The coming reign of God will be marked by a reversal of the effects of evil, from disease and infirmity to desertification:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes (vv. 5–7).
With the advent of the Day of the Lord, all that is wrong in the world will be made right; all that is old and feeble will be made new and vibrant; all sorrow will be turned into joy.
Jesus’s answer to John's disciples is clear to anyone who knows the Scriptures. When he points out that the blind and the lame are being healed, the lepers are being cleansed and the poor are receiving good news, he is declaring that the messianic age has arrived in his person and ministry. His mission represents the inbreaking of God’s reign; the inauguration of the glorious age that Isaiah heralded, which will be consummated at some future date. Make no mistake, though, Jesus seems to be telling John—the reign of God is present now and I am the one you have been waiting for.
After John’s disciples leave, Jesus goes on to do a little interpretative commentary on his wild-eyed predecessor, correcting some of his misapprehensions about Jesus in the process. John has wavered because Jesus does not resemble the Messiah he has been conditioned to expect, the liberating king who would free his people in fiery and violent judgment. Jesus consistently distances himself from this expectation throughout his ministry, and he does so here as well.
As usual, though, he does it in an oblique kind of way. He asks the people gathered around him, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at” when you went to John for baptism? “A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces” (vv. 7–8). What we miss but the crowds would have picked up on immediately is that Jesus is referring to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, who uses a reed as a symbol on his coinage and has a lavish royal palace along the Jordan River valley where John had baptized. Having drawn this distinction between John and Herod, Jesus goes on to describe John as a prophet and a forerunner, the messenger the prophet Malachi had promised would prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah.
Jesus seems to imply that John, despite his misconceptions concerning the Messiah, stood boldly in opposition to the powers, conducting a symbolic “conquest” of the land right under the noses of Herod and his cronies. And although their methods differ, Jesus and John are committed to the same goal. Where John expected overthrow, Jesus works for eventual reconciliation, but they both seek an end to the hegemony of injustice and hail the coming of the reign of God, where the blind will see, the lame will walk, and all things will be made new.
As Jesus’s forerunner, John has to share his mission, and when he gets some of the details wrong, Jesus offers a course correction. As Jesus’s disciples, we must share his mission as well, and when we go off track, as all of us do sometimes, he stands ready to correct us as well. When we fall prey to the easy temptation to use violence in service of God, he calls us back to peaceful means of resistance. When we try to accomplish good ends through questionable means, he tells us that it matters not only what we do but also how we do it. When we sow division or fear, or lean too heavily on our righteous anger, he reminds us that only light can dispel darkness, only love can drive out hate.
Both John and Jesus envision the same destination: the restoration and renewal of all things under God’s just reign; the healing of the blind and the lame; the blossoming of the crocus in the dry land; springs of water bubbling up through thirsty ground, transforming the desert into an oasis. As people of faith we envision this destination as well. But even when the destination is the same, how you get there matters. Let us commit ourselves today, on this third Sunday of Advent, to welcoming the coming of Jesus in a manner befitting the Prince of Peace. Let us face the coming days with courage and hope. Let us become a community of healing, where the blind and lame, the poor and broken, the mentally ill and emotionally distraught, the rejected and lonely and fearful find welcome and affirmation. Let us be the people of God, the ransomed of the Lord.
Hear now God’s Advent promise: “The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (v. 10).
Let it be so. Come quickly, Lord Jesus!