Not long ago I called an Uber. The driver’s photo was striking. She had a peacock-blue mohawk, a pair of sunglasses with mirrored lenses and a barbed-wire neck tattoo. When the car arrived, I was surprised to find the driver conservatively dressed, tattoo-free and a brunette. “You’re not the person I was expecting,” I told her. “I keep forgetting to change my photo; that was me 10 years ago,” she said. I was skeptical, so I held up my phone and compared. Sure enough, the face was the same.
Recognition takes discernment. This was the point of John’s question to Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” John was sure that a Messiah was coming, but his question suggests that he was not sure about the details.
This is no surprise, as different ideas of the coming Messiah circulated in John’s day. Some expected a religious messiah who would take some action to purify the Temple. Others looked for a military messiah who would liberate Israel through warfare, and re-establish an enduring nation-state along the lines of David’s kingdom.
Jesus’ answer subverted these expectations. He pointed out that the works he had been performing throughout Galilee reflected the prophecy of Isaiah that we hear in this week’s first reading. But Jesus did more than confirm John’s hopes. Isaiah 35 does not speak of a messiah at all, but rather of God himself coming to Israel to heal the blind, the lame and the deaf and to free the poor from their slavery. Jesus claims that it is God who is at work through his ministry.
The openness of John’s question revealed a discerning mind at work. His question was free of preconceptions. He could have tried to force Jesus into one or another model of messiahship with leading questions like, “When do you think you will act against the Romans?” or “When will you act against corruption in the temple?” Instead, John left it to Jesus, saying to him, “You tell me who you are.”
Every disciple ought to approach Jesus with such openness. This can be difficult; years of learning and thinking about Jesus from one perspective can keep us from knowing him as he wishes us to know him. Too often we have a fixed image of how Jesus preached and acted, which can limit our ability to get to know Jesus at a deeper level. John’s question in today’s Gospel calls us to break out of this rut. John let Jesus tell him whether or not he was the messiah. Although for Christians today that is a settled question, we still hope to find Jesus at work in our lives and in our world. Like John, our relationship with Jesus should begin with the request, “Lord, tell me who you are.”
In his commentary on this Gospel passage, the patristic author Theodore of Mopsuestia noted that John’s question relied on his personal relationship with Christ. He loved Jesus, and knew him well enough to trust whatever answer Jesus gave. Theodore argued that this should be the case for Christ’s disciples in any age: The disciple who wishes to know Christ must come to know him personally.
Our fixed images of Jesus may be out of date. They will hinder more than help us in our search for a personal relationship. Jesus is alive and at work through the Gospels, the sacraments and the church throughout the world. In addition to word and sacrament, we too must take up Isaiah’s dream and perform the works of mercy as Christ did. There are still poor to be fed, prisoners to be visited, sinners to be admonished and offenses to be forgiven. When we continue Christ’s ministry in this way, not only will we find him alive and still at work, but we can also share his hands and voice and heart with a world in desperate need.
Recognition takes discernment. We seek Jesus in all the places he tells us to look, but we will only find him if we are free enough to let him tell us who he is. He will almost certainly not be the messiah we expected. He will, however, be God’s real presence active in our lives, and through us, in a world hungry for salvation.