In the middle two Sundays of Advent we hear a lot about John the Baptist. He is a very important figure in the Bible and in the history of our salvation since he uniquely bridges both the Old and New Testaments. It is not difficult to regard John the Baptist as the very last of the Old Testament Prophets and the picture painted of him in the extract from the Gospel we are presented with today certainly makes him look and sound like one of those prophets of old.
Today we begin the liturgical year and as it is unfolded before us Sunday by Sunday this time we will be taking the perspective of St Matthew and will be examining the life of Jesus through his eyes.
St Luke draws an important distinction in the first line of our Gospel text today. He says, “The people stayed there before the Cross watching Jesus. As for the leaders, they jeered at him.” He distinguishes carefully between the response of the people and their leaders. It is the leaders who mock Jesus not the people. The people stay at the Cross reverently watching Jesus saying nothing.
I think it is important to place today’s extract from St Luke’s Gospel in context. Jesus has by this point arrived in Jerusalem. He entered the Holy City on a donkey and was acclaimed by his followers as the Messiah. He then spends the next few days teaching in the Temple and we are told that he spent his nights on the Mount of Olives. His teaching has become more apocalyptic and he predicts the destruction of the Temple and weeps over Jerusalem. It is in this context that he gives this warning to his disciples to be on their guard and prepare themselves for persecution.
The Sadducees could not have put a trickier question to Jesus than this one about the widow with seven husbands. While it is a hypothetical story it is also quite an outlandish one since after two or three of the brothers marrying this woman in order to ‘raise up children for their brother’ it must have dawned on them that she was actually barren and unable to have children.
We have for our Gospel reading today the story of Zacchaeus the tax collector who was so short that he had to climb up a tree to get a better view of Jesus as he was passing by. Everyone including Zacchaeus himself is completely surprised when Jesus announces that he intends to stay at Zacchaeus’ house that day.
Jesus pulls no punches in today’s Gospel text about the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Typically, he chooses as his characters first one who is ostensibly the most upright and religious and then the other who is despised by everyone. And, as ever in his parables, Jesus turns the accepted order upside down.
It is clear that the main theme of our readings is perseverance in prayer. In the first reading we heard how Moses stretched out his arms in the desert and the Israelites gained the upper hand in the battle. When his arms eventually drooped through tiredness the Israelites began to lose the battle. So, Aaron & Hur had to prop his arms up on a rock so that they would not droop. In this way their enemies were conquered and the victory was won.
It is often interesting when reading about one or other of Christ’s healings to note that he very often forgives the sins of the sick person and this forgiveness seems to bring about their physical healing. At other times Jesus his puts out his hand or makes some other sign like putting paste on a blind man’s eyes. In most cases we can identify a particular moment when the healing takes place.
In the Gospel today we hear the Apostles asking Jesus to increase their faith. They understand the first lesson that faith is necessary but we presume because they feel that they do not have very much faith they want to know how to increase it, and in this they are probably not too different from us. Like them we too often feel very keenly that our faith is completely inadequate and that we could do with much more of it.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket