By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Second Sunday of Advent, Year A
First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10; Response: Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17; Second Reading: Romans 15:4-9; Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12
The first reading in last Sunday’s liturgy was from the prophet Isaiah. Today, again – and in all the Sundays of Advent, plus the Masses provided for Christmas Day – the first reading is from Isaiah. Our four gospels also depend heavily on Isaiah, as did the letters of St. Paul and other New Testament documents. For this reason, the Book of Isaiah has sometimes been called “the Fifth Gospel.” St. Jerome, the great Scripture scholar who died in 420 A.D., wrote that Isaiah “should be called an evangelist (gospel author) rather than a prophet because … you would think he is composing a history of what has already happened….” Jerome wrote this because he and other Church Fathers viewed Isaiah as not speaking so much to the people of his time in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C., but predicting everything that was to occur in the life and times of Jesus 800 years later. Later, biblical scholarship is not quite so casual about predictions, though it is quite true that interpreting the oracles as predictions was one of the formative processes producing the New Testament.
The Lord often sent Isaiah to advise the king – in this case, King Hezekiah – in political matters. The Assyrian Empire was the dominant political force. Hezekiah wanted to join a coalition with Egypt and other kingdoms to revolt against the domination of Assyria. Isaiah tried to stop this hopeless effort. He and the king had bitter words. Hezekiah joined anyway. The revolt was crushed by Assyria. Hezekiah had to pay a huge indemnity. It is likely that the rejection of his advice led Isaiah to proclaim the oracle that is today’s first reading – the vision of a future king who would take the Lord’s advice given through his prophets. We should imagine the delivery of this oracle in the form of rapping. He begins, “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse.” Jesse was the father of King David from whom Hezekiah and a long line of kings descended from 1,000 B.C., until Isaiah’s time and beyond, to 587 B.C. The oracle contains the basis of Christian catechetics on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The hoped-for king, after some violence, would bring universal peace, which Isaiah depicts in metaphors: wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, calf and lion, cow and bear, lion and ox, child and poisonous serpent – all would peacefully associate with each other. It did not take long for Christian interpreters to apply all this and more to the reign of Jesus, descendant of King David, and the still unattained universal kingdom of everlasting peace.
Psalm 72, a royal psalm, envisions an ideal king who will bring justice and peace to his people. Peace will continue “until the moon is no more.” This ideal king will rule “from sea to sea,” probably meaning the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean, and “from the River (Euphrates) to the ends of the earth (the Strait of Gibraltar). He will rescue the poor and afflicted from their oppressors, pity the humble and the poor, and save their lives. His fame will last as long as the sun shines. All nations shall proclaim him blessed.” Christian interpreters naturally applied all this to Jesus and his hoped-for kingdom. We pray that it will be accomplished.
In the second reading, Paul reminds us that the Scriptures, by which he means the Old Testament, were written for our instruction. He calls for unity in the Roman congregation of Christians. They were dealing with racial problems between Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles. He urges them to welcome one another, so that not only the Jews, but also the Gentiles, will glorify God and sing praises to his name. This racial problem was widespread in early Christianity. It was not solved until the Church became overwhelmingly Gentile in ensuing centuries.
The gospel introduces us to the ministry of John the Baptizer. He was preaching repentance in the wilderness of Judea. This was the area, east of Jerusalem, sloping down toward the Dead Sea. It gave access to the Jordan River for John’s baptizing. His message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Meaning: God is about to intervene in this wicked world to bring peace and justice on earth, just as we were told in our first reading and in the response Psalm. Like other preachers and teachers of early Christianity, Matthew finds an Old Testament connection to events in the gospels. He turns to a part of Isaiah now known as Second Isaiah. This is a collection of oracles of an unknown prophet added to the oracles of Isaiah of Jerusalem. The latter’s oracles are collected in Isaiah 1-39; Second Isaiah’s oracles in chapters 40-55. His time is around 540 B.C. Matthew implies that this Isaiah, 600 years earlier, was speaking about the Baptizer and his ministry. Something of a stretch because we know that this prophet was actually speaking about the return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon in his own time. However, God allows new meanings to be given to these ancient texts by applying them to gospel-times. Preachers still do it.
The Baptizer’s wardrobe: “He wore clothing made of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist.” Matthew copies this from a description of the 9th century B.C. prophet Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8, with a nod toward Zechariah 13:4. John’s diet: locusts and wild honey. Locusts are listed as kosher food in Leviticus 11:22. Honey was the standard sweetener. A diet rich in protein and carbohydrates producing lots of energy! Desert locusts consist of 75 percent protein, 3.4 percent fats and 7.5 percent carbohydrates – plus small quantities of riboflavin, vitamin B3, iron, calcium and sulphur. The Baptizer’s mission was popular: “Jerusalem and all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him, being baptized as a sign of repentance of the sins which they confessed in public.” Typical of Matthew, he now depicts John verbally demonizing two classes of Jewish leadership – Pharisees and Sadducees. If John really spoke this last part of today’s gospel, he was in need of a course in “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” He calls them a “den of serpents,” invites them to repent, then threatens them with fire. Hardly a pattern for RCIA. Matthew adds a description of John’s baptism and John’s declaration of humility in his role as proclaimer of “the One who is to come after me, who is mightier than I.”