Here’s a question to ask about our gospel reading at Holy Mass tomorrow:
Why did John the Baptist, languishing in prison, send an investigative team of his disciples to determine if Jesus is the Christ?
After all, at the Visitation, John leapt while still in Elizabeth’s womb, because he recognized Christ in Mary’s womb. And, at the Jordan River, John had more or less recruited Christ’s original disciples for Him, by declaring, “Behold, the Lamb of God.”
So John knew Jesus’ identity perfectly well, better than anybody. To answer our original question, let’s keep two things in mind. 1) John knew that he himself would soon die at Herod’s hands. So his disciples needed to come around to the truth about Christ now. And 2) The way the Lord Jesus answered the question shows that He, too, knew He was answering not for John’s benefit, but for John’s disciples’ benefit. Which means He answered for our benefit, also.
Lord Jesus actually made three points in His response.
First, “Am I the One Who is to come? Well, what do you hear and see?” Great miracles of healing, all the way up to the raising of a dead man. Namely… whom did Jesus order to get up and come out of his own tomb? Right! Lazarus. And He also raised the son of the widow of Nain and Jairus’ daughter.
So, Christ is saying to John’s disciples, and to us: Am I the Christ? Don’t you have rock-solid testimony to the great miracles that I have worked?
Second: “the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” Jesus makes a subtle, but crucially important transition here. It’s not just that the poor believe in miracles, whereas the rich tend to cynicism. It’s that the work of the Christ benefits everyone in the same way—rich or poor, tall or short, Republican or Democrat, Redskins fan or Eagles fan.
Lord Jesus worked miracles of healing to help us grasp Who He is. But even miracles as wonderful as giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, or sure-footedness to the lame, all pale in comparison to the gift that Christ came to give to everyone, namely eternal life.
Some people have more money than others; some people have better eyesight than others; some people sing more euphoniously, or speak more mellifluously, or play cards more dexterously than others. But in the face of the ultimate reality, we all stand on equal footing.
None of us gets out of this alive. We all have in common the most decisive quality we possess: mortality. The tall, the short, the dexterous and the ham-handed, the good singers and the bad singers: we’re all mortal.
Which makes us all ‘the poor,’ if only we have the humility to face it. I don’t care how many times Alec Baldwin or anyone else barks orders at a fancy gadget that can automatically turn on your lawn sprinklers or give you traffic reports. If he, or anyone else, asks Siri or Alexa, or whatever, and says, “Ok Google, give me life after death,” the poor little machine will only say something pathetically inadequate, like “Searching the internet for LifeSaver breath mints.”
Which brings us to the third point in Jesus’ response to John’s disciples. “Blessed is the one that takes no offense at me.”
To understand this, let’s remember St. Peter. Unlike the disciples of St. John who came asking their question, St. Peter believed unequivocally that Jesus was the Christ. “Who do you say that I am?” “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
But St. Peter at first took offense at the details of the Christ’s mission. Lord Jesus told the Apostles, ‘They will condemn and crucify your beloved miracle-worker, like a common roadside criminal. They will scourge me and spit on me and treat me like the lowest scum of the earth.’ To which St. Peter replied, ‘Oh no! That’s offensive. No way, sir!’
The Christ—the one and only–the single known option when it comes to a miracle-working Savior Who has backed up His words with deeds for 2,000 years–the only real Christ won immortality for us by drinking the cup of our lowly and impoverished mortality to the dregs.
There’s actually only one way not to take offense at Christ. After all, what happened to Him is crushingly offensive. That the babe of Bethlehem wound up dying of asphyxiation, nailed to a cross, with a crown of thorns cutting into His temples, forehead, and scalp—that offends every sensibility a decent human being has.
Not taking offense at Him requires squarely facing our own desperate poverty. We need Him. We need Him like… like a desert needs rain, like a town needs a name… like a drifter needs a room…like the heat needs the sun…like rhythm unbroken, like drums in the night, like sweet soul music, like sunlight…
When we know we need Jesus, we take no offense at Him. None at all. He willed to get born in poverty and take His first breaths lying in the animals’ feeding trough. He accepted His horrifyingly ignominious death, to win eternal life for us. We welcome it all with joy, every detail of His Gospel, because He is the one true hope we have. John the Baptist knew that, and he spent his life helping others to see it.