After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee. When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
John the Baptist, the guy who baptized Jesus, who saw the Holy Spirit descend like a dove and all that, dares to ask if this guy is the real deal. It’s precocious and more than a little silly to question Jesus like this—or we read it that way. It’s so obvious, now, to those who have heard the story a thousand times. We already know that Jesus is the hero.
I love this question, not because John the Baptist seems foolish here, questioning the man we know to be the Son of Man—though I take a secret pleasure in stories that make Heroes Of The Faith look a little dumb. I love this question because it sounds so familiar: John the Baptist sounds tired. He sounds exhausted, here, like someone who has been disappointed before, someone who has waited and waited and waited, someone who has, in the past, spent his hope on things that fell short of the glory that he’d been promised. The guy is in prison. He can’t even ask Jesus himself. “Look, Jesus,” I imagine him saying, pacing his cell, rehearsing a speech he can’t leave the jail to give. “I’ve been in the desert a long time. I’ve been eating locusts. And now I’m in jail. I don’t have the energy or the time for any more false prophets. If you’re not the guy I’m looking for, I’d just as soon move along and look elsewhere. Give it to me straight.”
He’s not sure that he can trust that this time, the promise is coming true.
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”
Jesus doesn’t send John’s disciples back empty-handed. He doesn’t tell them directly, either, which is a habit of his I find alternately beautiful and maddening. He does not say “I’m the one.” He also doesn’t say, “how dare you,” or “obviously,” or even, “come on, man.” He’s a little sassy back, maybe– “you can draw your own conclusions, John.” Jesus just tells John’s disciples what’s happening, invites them to observe it all. And he repeats the language of the promise: the blind see, the deaf hear, the dead are raised. The promise is coming true.
Today we’re by the manger; Jesus doesn’t look, right now at least, like he’s going to raise the dead any time soon. Meanwhile, we are very much in the market for someone to restore our sight and raise the dead. This year—and, God, what a year—we are, perhaps, a bit like John the Baptist languishing in some shitty Roman jail, asking his only visitors to go talk to his cousin. Maybe his disciples find the question odd, or its answer obvious. Maybe John already knows he should believe, after that whole thing at the river with the voice of God coming down. Maybe he just wants to hear that voice again.
“I just need to know if it’s worth hoping,” we say. “Is this guy the One or not?”
Jesus doesn’t call the question silly. He doesn’t tell us what to believe. He tells us to look hard at what he’s doing, because that’s how we’ll know the promise is coming true: when the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
May it be so.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.