Summary: If John the Baptist had to make sure Jesus was the Messiah it may well have been because there were several examples upon which the expected messiah could be modelled. What are our expectations of the Messiah?
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" Jesus answered them, "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."
There is a distinguished British violinist named Peter Cropper. Cropper’s work was so outstanding that the Royal Academy of Music in London honoured him by lending him a priceless 258-year old violin made by Antonio Stradivarius. A long held dream had been fulfilled. But a terrible thing happened while Cropper was performing in Finland. He tripped and fell on the Stradivarius seriously damaging it. Cropper’s dream was turned into a horrible nightmare. He was inconsolable.
Some time later a London violin dealer told him of a master craftsman who could repair the Stradivarius. The violin was placed into the care of the craftsman. The result was far above what could have been expected. The repairs were so perfect they could not even be seen, and the soaring notes of the instrument were more beautiful than they had ever been before.
Peter Cropper was inconsolable until he found the right person. Perhaps there is something of this emotion in the life of John the Baptist as he sends to find out if Jesus is the ‘the one who is to come.’ Many of the people of Jesus time were filled with expectation, but so had many others down through the centuries. Invaded by Rome, and with their agents extracting the wealth of the nation there were many expressions of how that expectation would be fulfilled. Just what form this liberator, saviour or messiah (anointed one) would take was a matter of choice if not dispute.
If John the Baptist had to make sure it may well have been because there were several examples upon which the expected messiah could be modelled.
David was an obvious choice. A return of his kingly rule would be just what was required in order to free the Jews from the Romans.
Moses was another old Testament hero who formed the foundation of Messianic hope. The was the one who acted on behalf of God to free the Israelites from the clutches of Pharaoh The one who led them to the promised land could surely lead them against Rome.
The prophet Elijah would also serve as a model. Indeed, Elijah, who left the cult Baal in tatters and who confronted his king, Ahab, sending him into a state of humble repentance would seem a strong contender.
The possibility of this sort of confusion was not lost on the writer of Matthew’s Gospel. The first three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel shows us that Matthew believed that Jesus both fulfils and goes beyond each of these great heroes.
I n the first chapter Matthew follows Jesus’ family tree from Abraham to David and then through to Joseph and Jesus showing us that Jesus is in the kingly line of the house of David. Rather than harking back to the golden era of David’s reign, the genealogy leads us to a fulfilment.
Parallels can be drawn between the life of Moses and Jesus, and Matthew does so early on by recording the journey of the Holy Family to Egypt. Joseph, Mary and Jesus flee the threat of Herod, just as Moses was saved from Pharaoh. Moses had been the liberator who led the people out of Egypt. Jesus would be the new Moses who would lead God’s people once more out of captivity- a captivity to the law of Israel.
Matthew also makes the relationship between Elijah and Jesus quite clear. It is John the Baptist who is the Elijah figure. Matthew distinguishes between them clearly as the forerunner and the one who is to come.
By the time we come to the fourth chapter of Matthew, the chapter in which Jesus is led into the wilderness to be tempted, Matthew has clarified the relationship between Jesus the Messiah and three of the great heroes of the Old Testament, any of whom might have provided examples of what messianic leadership could be like.
Matthews clarification sets the scene for a remarkable journey filled with expectation. If Jesus goes beyond these heroes of the Old Testament just how will he show himself as messiah. Matthew takes up this challenge as well. When Jesus is asked about his mission he replies in words that echo our first reading:
Say to those who are of a fearful heart, "Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you." 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.