Reading 1: Is 11:1-10
Responsorial Psalm: Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17
Reading 2: Rom 15:4-9
Gospel: Mt 3:1-12
The theme of the Extraordinary Season of Advent is a two-fold anticipation; the anticipation of the birth of Christ that we celebrate at Christmas and the anticipation of the return of Christ at the end of the age. Our readings this week concentrate more on the second anticipation when the unjust will be punished, the just will be rewarded, and all things will be made new.
Our reading from Isaiah begins with “On that day.” From the Jewish perspective, “on that day” refers to the coming of the long-awaited Messiah; from the Christian perspective, it refers to the return of Christ at the end of the age, so it is a reference to the second of the two-fold anticipations of the Advent season.
Our reading from Isaiah comes from a chapter entitled “The Rule of Immanuel” and begins by prophesying that “a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse,” and was probably written around 740 B.C., before the destruction of the northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. and before the Babylonian Exile of the southern Kingdom of Judah in 587 B.C. Jesse was the father of King David, to whom God promised that David’s descendants would always occupy David’s throne (see 2 Sam 7:11ff). The “stump” that Isaiah refers to here is a prophecy that there will come a time when only a stump of David’s dynasty will remain (after the Babylonian Exile). But from that stump, from the root of Jesse, a shoot will sprout, and that shoot will be an offspring of Jesse and, therefore, an offspring of David. And “the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” Once again, Judaism interpreted that shoot to be the long-awaited Messiah; Christianity, of course, interprets that shoot to be Christ, a descendant of David.
The spirit that will rest upon the Messiah will be wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, knowledge, and fear of the Lord. Other translations also added the spirit of piety. Therefore, this is apparently the first biblical reference to the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The primary characteristic of the Kingdom established by this Messiah will be justice. Because justice prevails, peace will also prevail, and the entire “earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord.” As our Responsorial Psalm reminds us: “Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever.” And because that Kingdom will be just and peaceful, the Gentiles, too, will seek that Kingdom. We call that kingdom heaven because it represents a complete re-ordering of creation – the cow and the bear are neighbors, etc. That is what the New Creation will be like when the Kingdom comes on earth.
Our second reading from the Letter to the Romans is the New Testament when faithful Christians are already aware of the first coming of Christ and are urged to remain faithful in anticipation of the second coming. Paul reminds us that everything that was written previously in the scriptures and in the prophets was written for our instruction to strengthen our endurance in anticipation of his return.
Our gospel passage from chapter 3 of Matthew is entitled: “The Proclamation of the Kingdom” and also leads us toward the second coming of Christ when “every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” The Messiah will gather the wheat into his barn and burn the chaff. But there are some interesting points in this passage that many may not be aware of.
Notice how in the Gospel of Matthew, the coming Kingdom is referred to as “The Kingdom of Heaven.” The Gospel of Matthew is directed toward the Jews, and to devout Jews, the name “God” was to be avoided out of reverence – God’s name was too sacred even to be mentioned. Consequently, in Matthew, the Kingdom is always referred to as the Kingdom of Heaven, as opposed to the Kingdom of God, as in the other gospels. The expression: “The Kingdom of Heaven” occurs only in the Gospel of Matthew.
The author also quotes from Isaiah 40: “A voice crying out in the desert……..” as a reference to John the Baptist, and, in doing so, he is equating John the Baptist with Elijah. The Jews widely believed of the time that Elijah would return from heaven to prepare Israel for the coming Messiah. Elijah was apparently known for camel’s hair clothing and for an austere lifestyle in the desert and so, referring to John as one crying out in the desert and to his clothing being made of camel’s hair, makes the connection with Elijah; and the connection would not be lost on the Jew’s who read this passage.
The baptism John administered is reminiscent of the ritual bathing of the Essenes at Qumran, who bathed themselves as they confessed their sins. Notice that John doesn’t claim any special authority for the baptism he administers. He declares that he is baptizing with water “for repentance” (as at Qumran), but there is one coming after him whose baptism will have authority, and the one following John will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
We also have a reference in this passage to the Pharisees and the Sadducees coming to John for baptism. We often equate these two groups as leaders of the Jewish community, but they did not share the same beliefs and were often at odds with each other. Therefore, they would be very unlikely allies coming together to receive John’s baptism. The Pharisees (along with the Scribes) were devoted to both the written Law of Moses and to the oral law of tradition, which should be understood as an interpretation of the written law. The Sadducees were the priestly class who believed only in the written law of the Pentateuch and rejected oral tradition or interpretation of the law. They accepted as scripture only the first five books of the Old Testament, following only the letter of the law, and rejected any interpretation or oral tradition. Some of the concepts that separated these two groups were the presence of angels and the concept of resurrection, accepted by the Scribes and Pharisees but rejected by the Sadducees.
John was particularly harsh toward the Pharisees and Sadducees, referring to them as a “brood of vipers.” He apparently saw through their duplicity as these people prided themselves on being the true followers and children of Abraham, as being “The Chosen People of God.” Their pride would have kept them from thinking they needed anything John had to offer. But as the people came to John from all over the area, the Pharisees and Sadducees would have been skeptical of John and his motives. Is he trying to pass himself off as the Messiah? The author of this gospel may have included this harsh treatment of the Pharisees and Sadducees to remind the readers (and us) not to be overly confident in our salvation just because we call ourselves Christians. Don’t imitate the Pharisees and Sadducees; remain humble before the Lord and grateful for the grace that allows us to recognize him.
So the message for us this week, as it is throughout Advent, is that the Kingdom is coming. We are to anticipate that Kingdom and be prepared for its arrival. But since we don’t know when the Kingdom will come, it is easy for us to be less vigilant than we should be and may be caught off guard upon its arrival. Be a good Boy Scout: Be prepared!
Author: Ric Cross