Preparing the Way of the Messiah- Luke 7:18-50

10 Jan

Señor, abre mis labios,
Y mi boca proclamará tu alabanza.

Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

Those words signal the beginning of the Invitatory Psalm in the Liturgy of the Hours, or the Divine Office, which is prayed daily by Catholic priests and religious as well as by many laypersons. As I wrote the initial draft of this article on the airplane and eventually on my way to serve in Cali, Colombia, I remembered that verse, one of the first that I learned in Spanish through my practice of the Office, and that Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, gives praise to God immediately upon having his lips opened at the birth of his son. (cf. Luke 1:64)

Following this, Zechariah delivers his canticle that is also recited and called the Benedictus (Latin for blessed) during the Liturgy of the Hours, in Morning Prayer, or Lauds. The righteous priest and husband of Elizabeth prophesies thus about the newborn John:

“You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His path, to give His people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God by which the daybreak from on high will visit us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the path of peace.” (Luke 1:76-79)

John the Baptist then fades from the scene in Luke’s Gospel, not to be mentioned until briefly in Chapter 3, and then not again until Chapter 7. Nonetheless, several themes carry over from the Benedictus in order to prepare the reader for the reappearance of John the Baptist in Luke 7 and to properly integrate the story of St. John into the more important account of the life of Jesus Christ. In my previous article on the Lucan Gospel, about Jesus’ healing of the centurion’s slave at Capernaum and about His raising of the widow’s son at Nain, I wrote about the role of a prophet, who is characteristically truthful, humble and compassionate. Jesus is therefore the ideal prophet, yet He is more than that, (cf. Luke 7:26) though He is often derided as solely a prophet or as only the son of a carpenter. (cf. Luke 7:16, 4:22)

John the Baptist’s father is the first person in the Gospel of Luke to prophesy. (cf. Luke 1:67) In his praise to God for John’s birth, Zechariah highlights the necessary traits of a person of God. Besides prophecy, holy people are set apart by child-like humility and recognition of their role before God. Thus, as he calls John, “child”, Zechariah might as well be calling us to be the forerunners of the Messiah, who first came to us as a delicate newborn. Christ, we believe, will come again. It is therefore our joyous responsibility as Christians “to prepare His path” and to spread the Good News with renewed fervour, giving “knowledge of salvation” to all. The themes of tenderness, of mercy, of light in the midst of darkness, of redemption and resurrection from death, and of peace are all found in the Benedictus and enter the foreground in our renewed encounter with John, followed by Jesus’ pardon of the sinful woman in the Pharisee’s home. (cf. Luke 7:18-50)

Following Jesus’ miracle at Nain, a small Galilean village mentioned only once in the Bible, those present sensed the presence of Emmanuel; God is “among us”, having “visited His people!” (Luke 7:16, cf. Matthew 1:23) However, some including John the Baptist, who had been imprisoned for dissent against Herod Antipas, a cowardly puppet of the Roman occupiers of Palestine, were despairing in their search for the Saviour who was already with us. In this context, John sends two of his disciples to Jesus to ask Him the question: “Are you the One who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Luke 7:18-20)

Like the centurion before him in Luke’s Gospel, John, who was to be the herald of the Anointed but was about to be beheaded because an evil ruler’s jealous fear, in turn sends messengers ahead of him to speak with Jesus. (cf. Luke 7:3, 19) Even those whose faith is as dauntless as that of John occasionally become discouraged. Christ, then, acts both as teacher and consoler, telling the men who have come before him:

“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, (and) the poor have good news preached to them.” (Luke 7:22)

Jesus thus picks up John’s mission where he left off. Jesus, even more than John, brings hope to a people searching for deliverance, not from the tyranny of the Romans but from the yoke of sin and of death. Yet bringers of hope are often scorned, therefore in His message to John’s followers Jesus includes a blessing upon those “who take no offense at (Him).” (Luke 7:23) Christ confers this blessing upon John’s disciples, as well as upon us, knowing that many will reject Him because of our pre-conceived notions of kingship. Our Lord came to us wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger, instead of manifesting Himself as “a man dressed in fine garments”, living “in luxury” as would an earthly king. (Luke 7:25)

Importantly, then, Jesus’ message is not restricted to the pair of John the Baptist’s followers who come to Him; Jesus turns His attention to the crowds, proceeding to teach them about John’s purpose and then about His own. Christ, whose throne is in Heaven inasmuch as it ought to be prepared in our hearts (cf. Ste. Thérèse de Lisieux, Récréations Pieuses, “Le Divin Mendiant de Noël”, Str.1, 1vº), asks the people who had encountered the Baptist:

“What did you go out into the wilderness to behold? A reed shaken by the wind?…What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” (Luke 7:24, 26)

Here, in addition to His re-introduction of the theme of prophecy, Jesus includes a harsh but necessary commentary on the reign of Herod Antipas. Our Lord’s criticism of the king responsible for St. John the Baptist’s eventual martyrdom is veiled in His reed metaphor. (cf. Luke 7:24) The reeds of which Jesus speaks were common in the valley of the River Jordan, where the wind would blow them about. In a deeper sense, this verse is followed by Jesus’ warning about those who dwell “in luxury”. (Luke 7:25)

Herod Antipas had little power in actuality, besides the jurisdiction he had been given by Rome over Tiberias, his capital city, and over surrounding Galilee. Antipas had commissioned the minting of “coins stamped with the emblem of a reed” to mark the anniversary of the founding of Tiberias. (Scott Hahn and Curtis Mitch, Ignatius Catholic Study Bible, The Gospel of Luke, 7:24) Herod, like the reed blowing in the wind, was easily influenced: Antipas’ malleability and weak character are well-illustrated in legend by his willingness to give his daughter Salome anything she desired, including the head of John the Baptist on a platter, in exchange for a dance performance.

In contrast to Herod Antipas, Jesus lives and preaches a way that leaves no room for compromise. Christ is singularly “the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6). That way is prepared by John, the bridge between the Old and New Testaments, who is greater than any other prophet and is indeed the greatest “among those born of women”. (Luke 7:28 ) The one who comes as a messenger before the face of the Lord must then be an authentic image of God. (cf. Luke 7:27, Genesis 1:27)

John’s role as a forerunner of the Messiah is thus our role also, since God has made us prophets and more. In fact, humans have been made as little less than gods (cf. Psalm 8:6). In view of this great gift from God to us, humility is a critical yet often under-exercised virtue. Jesus reminds us that even though John the Baptist is the greatest among men other than Christ Himself, he is the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. (cf. Luke 7:29)

We, too, ought to wish to be regarded as the least in Paradise. The divinization of humankind (cf. 2 Peter 1:4) entails our consideration of ourselves as nothing before God. As such, the Lord’s reality absorbs ours completely, and we come into full union with God. (cf. Ste. Thérèse de Lisieux, Ms. B, 3vº) John, a humble man of the wilderness and certainly not a scholar, best understood that paradoxical theology of everythingness and nothingness. St. Luke writes that “all the people and the tax collectors” also understood the association between baptism by John and baptism in the Holy Spirit (cf. Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16), and thus the proper relationship between humanity and God. In rejecting baptism by one sent by God, the “Pharisees and lawyers” reject God in turn. (Luke 7:30, cf. John 12:44-50)

Often times we could aptly be compared to the Pharisees and lawyers of Jesus’ time. Our Lord makes an additional analogy between “the men of (His) generation and children in a marketplace (cf. Luke 7:32) Normally, children are portrayed favourably in Jesus’ teaching, while we are cautioned not to make a marketplace of God’s house. (cf. John 2:16)

A distinction must be made between a child-like and a childish approach to our faith. The first form of spirituality is guided by humility and by love of God, while the second is primarily self-seeking and thus falls short altogether of spirituality in its rightful sense. As in first-century Palestine, in our time we frequently prefer to choose aspects of faithful life best suited to us. We either reject the joyful message of Jesus and of His Kingdom, hence He “piped and we did not dance”, or we reject the more ominous words of John the Baptist that call us to repentance and to reform, hence John “wailed, and (we) did not weep.” (Luke 7:32) Our Catholic faith demands an all-inclusive approach to life and spirituality, as opposed to a pick-and-choose response to our God, who gives entirely of Himself to us out of pure love.

Jesus’ discourse about John in relation to Himself concludes with another criticism of the self-centeredness of the lawmakers, who had challenged Him about John’s fasting and about His own preference for eating in the company of His friends. John is called “a demon”, while Jesus in derided as “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34) The Pharisees and lawyers do not realize that Jesus is also their friend. God invites us all to be changed into accurate reflections of Himself and therefore to enter into Heaven as one. (cf. John 17:20-21) The “children of God” who are faithful, loving, and obedient toward the Lord intimately understand this message that is not only directed at scholars, but dwells within us deeply as God’s wisdom by which His disciples are justified. (cf. Luke 7:36)

The theme of God drawing us into Himself is carried over from the story of John the Baptist’s messengers into that of Jesus’ forgiveness at the Pharisee’s house of the “woman of the city.” (Luke 7:37) Jesus not only eats with lowly tax collectors and sinners, but also with proud Pharisees. While the former are drawn to Jesus’ loving forgiveness, the latter fail to recognize Him.

The woman is firstly described in Luke’s Gospel as a sinner. The Pharisee who had invited Jesus, as well as all the guests present, knew her reputation. However, Jesus knew her best and is therefore the greatest prophet, yet again the supposedly knowledgeable people misunderstand Jesus and His prophetic message. In fact, they are even unwilling to acknowledge Him as a prophet. This episode is the third direct mention of prophecy in Luke 7, and is also the first of three instances that St. Luke records of Jesus eating with Pharisees. (cf. Luke 11:37, 14:1) These details about threes are minor but pertinent, especially when one considers the several occurrences in threes in the Scriptures. In the Pharisee’s house, Jesus thus questions Simon the Pharisee:

“A certain creditor had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he forgave them both. Now which one of them will love Him more?” (Luke 7:41-42)

Jesus commends Simon for giving the obvious though correct answer: “The one, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” (Luke 7:43) However, the woman receives the greatest credit for coming to Jesus. Firstly, she is a woman, and therefore she would have been held in lower esteem than men of her time and place, especially in their company. (cf. Hahn and Mitch) Secondly, she had committed many sins (Luke 7:47), and thirdly she showed incredible hospitality compared to the established customs dating back to Abraham by anointing Jesus’ feet with the contents of an expensive alabaster jar. (cf. Luke 7:37, 44-46, also Genesis 18:4-5)

The woman’s extravagant love is her small response to the merciful love of God which is even more superlative. Thus those who are forgiven much love more than those who are forgiven little, as in the parable of the debtors. Jesus’ absolution of the woman’s sins is met with disbelief on the Pharisee’s part (cf. Luke 7:47-49), but Jesus’ final response of the chapter is, “Your faith has saved you, go in peace.” (Luke 7:50)

That peace that accompanies God’s love for us leaves us speechless on occasion, as Zechariah was silenced for disbelieving that the barren Elizabeth could conceive. (cf. Luke 1:22) The power of the Sacrament of Reconciliation whereby the priest, in the person of Christ, gives absolution to the penitent, whose barren soul then bears fruit, has left me without words in the past. Yet from this silence, our lips are opened, and we proclaim God’s praise for His lavish treatment toward us, while we still remember, as in Zechariah’s Canticle, our own calling to be heralds of the Messiah:

“And you, child, will be called the prophets of the Most High, for you will go before the face of the Lord to prepare His path…” (Luke 1:76, cf. Luke 7:27)

Y a ti, niño, te llamarán profeta del Altísimo, porque iras delante del rostro del Señor a preparar sus caminos, anunciando a su pueblo la salvación, el perdón de sus pecados.

Por la entrañable misericordia de nuestro Dios, nos visitará el sol que nace de lo alto, para iluminar a los que viven en tiniebla y en sombra de muerte, para guiar nuestros pasos por el camino de la paz. (Lucas 1, 76-79)

Lord Jesus, Your way was prepared by St. John the Baptist. May the light of Your face shine upon us in our wilderness and bring peace, especially upon those who are sick and dying. We come to you out of our silence. Grant us forgiveness for our sins, and then we may announce Your coming again in glory and praise You forever. We ask this in Your name. Amen.

WRS

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