Sunday reflection: Matthew 3:1–12

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 3:1–12:

John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: A voice of one crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.

When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Back when I worked in the corporate-management world, we started hearing a lot about mission statements in the 1980s. Every unit had to have one, and if we didn’t, we were told to start working on one tout suite. I’ve been part of the same conversations in volunteer organizations as well, to about the same effect as they had in the corporate world. Generally speaking, mission statements get as much attention as terms-of-service agreements on software — an acknowledgment, an occasional reference, and mostly ignored or forgotten, no matter how often it gets reproduced.

So why have mission statements? Job descriptions and written operating procedures hold much more practical value, although they’re not mutually exclusive. However, they generally inform people of limitations, of boundaries, of actions one cannot take as much as those they can. Jobs are finite, defined, and obligatory. Too often, we find ourselves doing enough to get by and stay out of trouble, rather than commit ourselves to our full abilities and potential.

Missions, on the other hand, involve passion, creativity, and commitment. People take jobs to serve their own personal goals. They join missions to serve greater goals in common, almost always to serve others more than themselves. People on a mission will work harder and use the extent of their gifts rather than look for easy limits and opportunities to check out. Defining work or other organizations as agents of a mission tries to emphasize that need for commitment and passion, directed in ways that benefit the overall organization within those procedures and job descriptions.

Today’s Gospel and readings remind us of that difference, and the mission of God’s plan for salvation. Isaiah, prophesying a century before the fall of the first temple, speaks of a Messiah who will fulfill Israel’s original mission to bring the Lord’s Word to all the nations, as we heard in last week’s readings. Isaiah had already prophesied of a new Jerusalem that would bring salvation to all the world, a mission which David attempted but which ultimately failed. Three centuries after David, Isaiah tells of a descendant of the same line who will bring justice and peace not just to all of humanity, but also to all creation. “On that day,” Isaiah promises, “the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious.”

John the Baptist turns this into a warning to the Israelites, especially its authorities, while preaching and baptizing at the Jordan. The Pharisees and the Sadducees had not paid heed to the mission; they had instead become stuck on the job description and the procedures. They turned the worship of the Lord in the temple into an obligation and an end in itself, rather than as a mission for the whole world. They worked to safeguard their own power and authority first, a point that Jesus will make repeatedly in later Gospel readings. Rather than evangelize to the world and model faith in the Lord, they had rested on their status as Israelites, descendants of Abraham and heirs of the covenant, and assumed it would be enough.

John addresses this assumption directly. Having Abraham as an ancestor did not provide any guarantees — and John strongly implies that it was never a limitation for salvation anyway. “God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones,” John warns. This parallels the prophecies of Jeremiah, who warned Israel not to count on the temple to save them from destruction. Judah had forsaken the Lord and engaged in worldly idolatry as a form of diplomacy for material power. They had turned their back on the mission — to act as a nation of priests to serve the whole world and bring them to the Lord.

The Pharisees and the Sadducees of this time have fallen into the same error, only in a different way. They resist the idolatry of foreigners, but as in Jeremiah’s time, treat the temple as a guarantor of their own security. They offer sacrifices, but for their own purposes and not for the Lord’s. Their visit to John the Baptist at this point was hardly as penitents ready to atone for their errors, but as investigators concerned about a threat to their own power. They have forgotten the mission, so much so that they close their ears to John the Baptist’s prophecies of it. Within forty years, the temple will be destroyed, and the Judeans ejected from their lands.

Jesus warned of this as well, explicitly in regard to the temple and to His own body. He did so as a preparation for the advent of the next phase of the Lord’s plan for salvation. Jesus founds the church in His ministry in order to transform Israel of old into the evangalizing mission which God intended for it all along. Rather than form a kingdom where the Gentiles will come to learn of the Lord, the Holy Spirit will work through Christ’s church to bring salvation to the rest of the world.

Paul explains this in plain language to the Romans. “For I say that Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness,” Paul declares, “to confirm the promises of the patriarchs, but so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”

Jesus came not to abandon Israel; He came to fulfill its purpose, its mission. For this reason, Jesus comes to the Israelites, rather than among the Gentiles, Paul writes. He came to restore those of them who committed themselves to that mission as a priestly order who could spread the glad tidings of salvation to all the world. His Great Commission in Matthew 28 completes His ministry and sets forth for all time the mission statement of His church, and all within it:

“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

As John the Baptist warned, the axe was already at the root of the tree, but to bring forth new inheritors of Abraham, and a new evangelization in place of the old. John proclaimed the advent of this new age, this new mission.

That advent continues for each of us. The season of Advent allows us to relive these moments, and to recommit ourselves to the Christian mission rather than just get stuck in our obligations. Certainly we have duties, and we have the Word of God to guide us through them. But if that’s all we are as Christians — all obligation and no passion or commitment — we risk becoming the Pharisees and Sadducees of our time.

Christianity — it’s not just a job or an obligation. It’s a mission.

The front-page image is a detail from “St. John the Baptist with the Scribes and Pharisees,” by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, ~ 1655. On display at The Fitzwilliam Museum.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.