15 December 2013
Third Sunday of Advent
Advent 3A (RCL)
In Matthew’s narrative world (whether or not it is historically accurate), one can imagine John stuck in prison, hearing about the works of Jesus and his disciples, and wondering if this really was what he had been waiting for. He had announced someone mightier than himself, whose sandals he was unworthy to carry, who would baptize in holy spirit and fire. He was imagining the ax at the root of the trees, ready to lay into the task of removing the dead wood. And instead, he hears of an itinerant wonder-worker. Surely, this is not the messiah he had been expecting. Where is God’s justice and vengeance in this man?
Matthew’s Gospel portrays the kingdom as a local phenomenon. The parable of the slave in debt to his king for the sum of 10,000 talents is a good example. Herod’s annual income was about 1000 talents, so this is ten years of Herod’s income. There is no way the man can repay, so the master forgives. This same man then goes out and throttles his fellow slave for 100 denarii, three months wages for a day laborer. The point of the story seems to be that we are all already so deeply in debt to the powers that be, that we need to work on justice between one another in the villages. Or the master who pays even those who worked only an hour in his vineyard the full day’s wage so they could eat — the point of the story seems to be that justice is served at the small scale. John was expecting something cosmic or at least political on a grand scale, and instead Jesus and his disciples are healing the sick.
The NRSV does a poor job of translating the first verse of this passage. We read, “When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing . . .” A better translation would be, “When John heard in prison the works of the Messiah . . .” The way the NRSV translates, what John hears is limited to the actions of Jesus. In the Greek, “the works of the Christ” might very well imply the works of the disciples as well, and in Matthew’s Gospel, this section comes after the commissioning of the twelve. Matthew is suggesting that the twelve are in fact doing the works of the Christ, bringing about the kingdom. While John expected a political kingdom, what the disciples are in fact ushering in is a kingdom in the villages where they are preaching.
It raises for us the question of what we are doing in our neighborhoods. It is very easy, in the midst of the political and economic miasma of our day, to point the finger of blame at “capitalism” or “the 1%” or any number of other places, and then loose hope in our ability to make any change. We can be like John in prison, hoping for something apocalyptic to set things right. Instead, as disciples, we are to be building a kingdom of justice in the towns and villages where we preach and heal. We are to be organizing communities to claim their own justice, to be baptized in holy spirit and fire.
The reading from James suggests that it will take patience. This is not going to happen overnight, but whenever we can build cooperative community, we can restore God’s justice. We may not topple empire, but we can live in justice with one another locally. From our prisons, we can begin to dream reconciliation and then enact it in small, but life-changing ways. Ultimately, that is the only thing that will usher in the kingdom, but it may be hidden like yeast in the batch of dough, or pesky like mustard seed in the garden.