Second Sunday of Advent, Year A
Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12
The tentative dates for Isaiah’s ministry in and around Jerusalem is 740-680 B.C. This section of Isaiah’s oracles is dated in the latter part of his prophetic ministry, possibly during the reign of King Hezekiah, (715-687), and this king’s flirtations with the second political power of the day, Egypt. Egypt was pressing Hezekiah to join a “collation of the willing” to revolt against the powerful influence and domination of the most important political power of the day, the Assyrian Empire northeast of the Kingdom of Judah. Isaiah had bitter words with Hezekiah to deflect him from the Egyptian coalition. Assyria crushed the revolt in 709 B.C. and Hezekiah had to pay to Assyria a huge indemnity. Hezekiah’s ignoring of Isaiah’s advice is probably the situation which led Isaiah to proclaim this oracle of today’s first reading.
When a tree is cut down it often sends out new growth from the stump. Thus Isaiah’s use of a stump as a symbol. Hezekiah, his royal predecessors, and his successors for another century were descendants of King David (1,000 B.C.). King David’s father’s name was Jesse. Therefore, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
Isaiah therefore foresees a great and just ruler in the future, a contrast to his disappointment with King Hezekiah. The next part of the oracle describes how the Spirit of the Lord would be upon this future king. These words of Isaiah became the biblical source of the Christian enumeration of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. This future king would bring justice to the poor, protect the meek from the legal robbery of the wealthy. Some violence is involved, but in the end Isaiah gives us an ideal picture of peace. Wolf and lamb, leopard and baby goat, calf and lion, cow and bear, lion and ox, child and poisonous serpent will lovingly hang out together in peace. Then a glorious ending: “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a banner to the nations (Gentiles). All nations will seek him . . . .” It did not take long for Christian prophets and teachers to give these oracles a new meaning — the Root of Jesse became Jesus the Christ, Prince of peace.
The verses sung from Psalm 72, the Responsorial Psalm carry on the theme of a future king who would rule with justice. Peace will reign. His rule will be from “sea to sea,” (probably the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean), from “the River” (Euphrates) to the ends of the earth, (probably a much too glorious description of King David’s Empire before it fell apart). He will hear the cries of the poor and those who have no one to help them. His name will be honored as long as the sun shines. All nations will honor him. The People’s Response sums up the meaning of the Psalm, “Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever.” In Christian interpretation, this Psalm describes the benefits of Christianity for the whole earth, for all nations. That is the ideal. It has never been the real. We can hope for such a future in the here, but more likely that future will be in the hereafter.
As Paul approaches the end of his great Letter to the Romans, he moves from profound theology to exhortation — from believe this to do this. He reminds the Roman Christians that the Scriptures (the Old Testament) were written to give us hope. As in other first century Christian Communities, Paul implies some stress between Jewish and Gentile Christians. He reminds all of them that Christ was sent to the Jews to prove the truth of God’s promises, but that the ultimate goal of Christ’s mission was, “that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” In this way he justifies his own mission and the Christian mission beyond the Jews to all nations.
This Sunday and next Sunday emphasize the mission of John the Baptizer. One may regard this gospel reading as the original beginning of Matthew’s gospel, before he composed what we call the Infancy Gospel, chapters 1 and 2. The pattern for writing a gospel was established by the Gospel of Mark written about 70 A.D. Mark’s gospel began with the mission of the Baptizer. Matthew, writing in the mid-eighties, copies much from Mark in this section, but gives John much more to say than does Mark. John’s first word, “Repent,” meaning “You must change for the better.” Why? “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” God’s intervention in a wicked world is finally close. God will establish peace and justice on earth, as we were already told in today’s first reading and in the Responsorial Psalm.
Matthew, always determined to find some connection in the Old Testament to events in the New, adds a description of the Baptizer in the words of the prophet called Second Isaiah, giving a new meaning to the words of this 540 B.C. prophet. The original meaning was a promise from a mysterious voice that the end of the Israelite exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C. was now at hand. The new meaning: John the Baptizer is that new voice now announcing repentance, a return from being exiled from God. Matthew describes John’s clothing and diet. The clothing was the standard clothing of a prophet. Matthew found this info in the description of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8, and Zechariah 13:4. No finery, just a wrap-around of camel’s hair and a leather belt to hold it in place. John’s diet is strictly kosher — locusts (Leviticus 11:22), and wild honey. John’s activity was in the wilderness of Judea, east of Jerusalem and close to the Jordan River since John needed a source of water to complete his work — baptizing the repentant. Repentance was signaled by the public confession of sins.
Matthew adds something he did not find in Mark, as he puts into John’s mouth a denunciation of the leaders of the opposition to the Christian movement that had already developed by the eighties of the first century when he composed his gospel. These denunciations will continue and reach their climax in Matthew 23 with seven curses against “the scribes and Pharisees,” but then in the mouth of Jesus. Such an approach is either a recognition of the impossibility of success over one’s opponents or an extreme example of tough love. Not recommended for the RCIA.