Last Sunday we heard an account of John the Baptist preaching and baptizing in the wilderness. “Repent,” he cried, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John must have been convincing, or perhaps people were just afraid of him and did what he said, because crowds came out to him, confessed their sins, and were immersed in the waters of a river, the Jordan.
John, however, was afraid of no one. When the Pharisees and the Sadducees – people who had power – arrived, he denounced them before he baptized them. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” And he even denounced Herod, the ruler, when he took his brother’s wife. Herod was ruthless and brutal; John must have known that this would lead to his death. It did.
The only person who seems to have given John pause is Jesus. Jesus stopped him and made him wonder. Today in the Gospel we hear about this. John is in prison, and he sends his own disciples to question Jesus, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answers, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk; lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” And he goes on to identify John as a new Elijah, for tradition had it that Elijah was to reappear before the coming of the Messiah. He quotes the prophet Malachi: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee.” ( 3:1 ) In so doing, Jesus proclaims himself to be the Messiah, but in his answer to John, he tells John what his Messiahship is all about. It is about repentance – yes – but it is not about the “wrath to come.” The Kingdom of Heaven which Jesus preaches is about healing, and wholeness of life, and restoration, and his preaching and his deeds correspond exactly. In the chapters that run up to today’s Gospel, these are the things that Jesus has been doing. “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk; lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”
This is something unexpected. It is a new moment in the history of God’s dealings with his people. That is why Jesus tells the crowds that as great as John is, the greatest in fact, he is not as great as the least in the kingdom. John is a figure in the old covenant, of the old covenant. But now the Messiah has come to usher in a new covenant and the signs of that new covenant are to be healing and wholeness, life and restoration. “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk; lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Again, this is what Jesus has been up to before he is questioned by John. They are signs that Jesus is the Messiah and what that means.
The Church understood this to have been predicted by Isaiah in the passage we heard for the lesson this morning. Isaiah is speaking to a people in exile and he tells them, “Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap like a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.” And Isaiah was right. God did deliver his people. St. Matthew and the Church, however, understood that God had come a second time to deliver his people, and Isaiah predicted this as well. He came to his people now in Jesus the Messiah. He came to bring deliverance, healing and wholeness, life and restoration, and joy.
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So far, so good. I hope I’ve made clear what the encounter between Jesus and John in the Gospel is all about. A new kind of Messiah, Jesus himself, and a new kind of relationship between God and his people. But there is something else going on in the passage from Matthew, and indeed in much of the New Testament. Something which, I think, most of us are completely unaware of until it is pointed out to us. It is the matter of ritual purity. Ritual purity.
This is an aspect of religion I don’t think any of us here can really understand. It seems bizarre, and that is because we are Christians, and in Christianity there are no standards or requirements of ritual purity. These we consider to have been done away with by Jesus the Messiah, and so that realm of religious behavior rarely even enters our thought, even though it is crucial for some faiths.
You will remember that the earliest dispute in the Church – recorded by the Book of Acts and in the letters of Paul – was over the admission into the Church of Gentiles, non-Jews, people “beyond the pale” as far as Jews were concerned. Could they be admitted? And if they could, did the males have to undergo the Jewish rites which established their ritual purity? The outcome of that dispute was that Gentiles were admitted as they were. Ethnic distinctions and ritual purity for males and by extension for females are abolished in Christianity.
And so were dietary laws: what you could and what you couldn’t eat and how it had to be prepared – that is, the ritual purity of food. St. Mark tells us that when Jesus thought about “defilement” – that is, impurity – that it is not what goes into one’s mouth, but what comes out of one’s heart that defiles one – in so saying, Mark tells us, “he declared all food clean.” ( Mk 7:19 ) And you may remember, as well, St. Peter’s vision in the Book of Acts. ( Acts 10: 9 – 16 ) He saw a cloth coming down from heaven containing every kind of creature – pure and impure, that is, kosher and non-kosher – and he was commanded to eat. When he protested, a voice replied, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” So again, we have no conception of ritual purity in Christianity. None at all.
Not so in Judaism, even today’s Judaism, and particularly in the Judaism of Jesus’ time. And that is what is going on in the ministry of John. Sin defiled a person. It made them ritually impure, which meant that they could not properly pray or worship God, for as the law dictated, nothing unclean, nothing impure can relate to God, or be present to God. And so people came to be purified. They confessed their sins and John immersed them. He gave them a ritual bath to restore their purity. A ritual bath in a river – and it had to be a river. Only running water would do. John’s ministry was not only to call for repentance and for people to turn away from deeds which were evil, but it was also, when they did repent, to restore their purity.
What John did and could do was to deal with moral faults. There were certain other conditions, however, that were inherently impure and which according to the laws of purity could not be changed. If you were born a certain way, if you suffered from a certain ailment or condition, you were de facto impure. And that meant that you could not pray. You could not worship. You could not relate to God, for, again, according to the law nothing impure can approach God.
Brutal? Unfair? Seems that way to me, but that was the law of ritual purity, like it or not. And what were the conditions which brought this on? We’ve already heard the answer: blindness, being lame, having leprosy, being deaf, and the greatest impurity of all, being dead.
Jesus heals and he raises the dead, and as happy as those wonders might be, again something else is going on. He is removing the ritual impurity inherent in their affliction and making possible their relationship to God. Remember Jesus and the leper. ( Mt 8:2 – 4 ) The man does not ask to be healed, he asks to be cleansed. Jesus heals and thereby cleanses him.
Here, then, is another dimension of the encounter between John and Jesus which we heard in the Gospel. This is a further sign to John the Baptist that something absolutely new is taking place. Jesus is doing what could not be done before. John dealt with sin and repentance. Jesus calls for repentance as well, but he is able to undo things thought to be permanent and he heals, but more than that he restores the afflicted to a relationship with their God. And that, good people, is what our Messiah is all about.
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”