This Sunday we celebrate the Second Sunday of Advent. The Gospel reading introduces us to John the Baptist, one of the great characters of Advent, who challenges us to show evidence of our change of heart. The first reading prophesies the coming of the great king of David’s line who will bring justice and peace to the earth. The reading from the letter to the Romans reminds us that the source of true unity is Christ himself.
First Reading: Isaiah 11: 1-10
1 But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.
2 The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, A spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD,
3 and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD. Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide,
4 But he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
5 Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.
6 Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.
7 The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
8 The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
9 There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea.
10 On that day, The root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, The Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious.
NOTES on First Reading:
* 11:1 Jesse was David’s father. The stump refers to the stump of the tree of the Davidic dynasty which will be all that remains after the Babylonian Exile. In spite of its sorry state, from this stump of the once great tree will arise the new shoot, the Messianic King.
* 11:2-3 This verse is the source of the traditional names of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Septuagint (Greek text of the Old Testament used by the early church) and the Vulgate (St. Jerome’s Latin text) read “piety” for fear of the LORD in its first occurrence, thus listing seven gifts. The Spirit of the Lord is Yahweh’s spirit given to individuals to enable them to fulfill missions which otherwise would be beyond their ability and power. Examples are: Moses (Num 11:17); the judges (Judge 3:10,6:34,11:29); the prophets (Mica 3:8); David (1 Sam 16:13). The coming king would mark a return to the charismatic tradition which had long been an ideal in Israel.
* 11:3-5 The virtues of the coming king are marked by perfect justice characterized by “right judgment” which results in perfect peace. The kingly attributes listed here have parallels in the Royal Psalms such as 72:1-4,12-14.
* 11:6-9 This image of the idyllic harmony of paradise is a dramatic symbol of the universal peace and justice of Messianic times when the disharmony introduced into creation by sin is undone and all of creation is once again in perfect harmony.
Second Reading: Romans 15: 4-9
4 For whatever was written previously was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, 6 that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
7 Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you, for the glory of God. 8 For I say that Christ became a minister of the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs, 9 but so that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written: “Therefore, I will praise you among the Gentiles and sing praises to your name.”
NOTES on Second Reading:
* 15:5 Thinking in harmony was a Greco-Roman ideal that Paul adapts to express the Christian virtue of unity. It is not rigid uniformity of thought and expression but thoughtful consideration of other people’s views that Paul calls for here.
* 15:7-13 True oneness of mind lies in the ultimate mission of the church which is to bring about the glorification of God’s name throughout the world and the universal recognition of Jesus Christ as God’s gift of Himself to all humanity.
* 15:8-9 Jesus had to be a member of the Jewish people and a minister unto them so that God’s promises to the Chosen People could be fulfilled and give evidence of Divine truth. However as Paul understands them, both Jews and Gentiles are included in the promises and in verses 10-12, which are not part of the reading, he includes quotes from the Torah, the Psalms and the Prophets to make his point.
Gospel Reading: Matthew 3: 1-12
1 In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea 2 (and) saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” 3 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.'”
4 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. 5 At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him 6 and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.
7 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? 8 Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. 9 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. 10 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. 11 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. 12 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.”
NOTES on Gospel Reading:
* 3:1 Unlike Luke who tells the story of John’s birth, Matthew says nothing of the Baptist’s origins. Matthew does not present him as a relative of Jesus either. The desert of Judea is the barren region west of the Dead Sea extending up the Jordan valley. Matthew presents John very much as the mysterious Jewish prophet of the desert. Matthew takes up the order of Jesus’ ministry found in the Gospel of Mark, beginning with the preparatory preaching of John the Baptist. The early Christians felt that Jesus and John were related in their prophetic preaching, practice of baptism and expectation of God’s coming kingdom. Some of John’s followers even attempted, for a time, to continue his movement as a rival to Christianity. Because of his martyrdom and Jesus’ respect for John the early church began to look upon John as a forerunner of Jesus. Matthew goes a bit further than the other gospel writers by placing the central message of Jesus’ early preaching in John’s mouth (compare v 2 with 4:17) and clearly identifying John with Elijah (11:14;17:10-13).
* 3:3 This verse presents a repunctuation and reinterpretation of the Hebrew text of Isaiah 40:3 which reads, “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord.” It follows the Septuagint text with references to Yahweh transferred to Jesus. The quotation is from Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah chapters 40-55), the prophet of consoling good news of deliverance and return from exile. Deutero-Isaiah is very important to the New Testament as a kind of proto-gospel but the New Testament denationalizes its ideas and plays down its call for vengeance.
* 3:4 The clothing of John recalls the austere dress of the prophets especially Elijah (2 Kings 1:8; Zech 13:4). There was a common expectation in Israel that Elijah would return from heaven to prepare Israel for the final manifestation of God’s kingdom. According to Matthew this expectation was fulfilled in the Baptist’s ministry (Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13).
* 3:5 This is a wide area that may include not only Galilee but also Transjordan and the pools of Aenon (John 1:28;3:23).
* 3:6 Ritual washing occurs frequently in the Old Testament and was practiced by various groups in Palestine between 150 B.C. and A.D. 250. John’s baptism may have been related to the purificatory washings of the Essenes at Qumran. The word, “baptizein” literally means to “dip” or “immerse” and ceremonially it may have also meant to “pour”. Here baptism is a religious rite of cleansing or purification with analogues in the Old Testament priestly and Pharisaic rites. See Ex 29:4, Lev 14:8, 16:4 and their parallels. Confession of sin also has a long Old Testament tradition. See Lev 16:21; 26:40; Num 5:7; Jos 7:19; Job 33:27-28; Ps 32:5; Pr 28:13; Dan 9:4.
* 3:7 Josephus (contemporary Jewish historian) tells us that religious Judaism at this time was made up of three major sects: Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. The Essenes are not mentioned explicitly in the Bible although the smaller Zealots group which is mentioned was often associated with them. The Pharisees were marked by devotion to the law, both written and oral, and the scribes, experts in the law, belonged predominantly to this group. Although the Pharisee movement originated in the Maccabean period and had helped to save Judaism, by the time of Jesus, it had become rigid and exclusivistic. Jesus criticized them severely because their religious leadership was so rigidly serious, and narrowly focused on their own interpretation of the law. By Matthew’s time the Rabbis, who were their heirs, had become the chief opponents to Christianity. The Sadducees were the priestly aristocratic party, centered in Jerusalem who accepted as scripture only the first five books of the Old Testament called the Torah, followed only the letter of the law, rejected the oral legal traditions, and were opposed to teachings not found in the Pentateuch, such as the resurrection of the dead. Matthew links both of these groups together as enemies of Jesus (Matthew 16:1,6,11,12; Mark 8:11-13,15). The Pharisees were not always unfriendly to Jesus (Luke 13:31) and in Mark they took no part in His death. The threatening words that follow are addressed to them rather than to “the crowds” as in Luke 3:7. The coming wrath is the judgment that will bring about the destruction of unrepentant sinners.
* 3:8 John insists that “follow-through” is required beyond the simple intention of repentance. The words used for “repent” and “repentance” here and in verse 2 imply a fundamental change of attitude and a consequent radical change of one’s life.
* 3:9 Salvation is not hereditary. This hints toward the more general Matthean theme that Gentiles can be saved (Amos 3:2; Deut 1:17;16:19; 2 Chron 19:17).
* 3:11 The water baptism of John will be followed by an “immersion” of the repentant in the cleansing power of the Spirit of God, and of the unrepentant in the destroying power of God’s judgment. Some, however, see the Holy Spirit and fire as synonymous, and the effect of this “baptism” as either purification or destruction. John sees the purifying power of the baptism to come as being greater than that of his own baptism just as fire is a greater agent of purification than water. Matthew differs from the other Gospels and Acts by saying “carry” instead of “untie” sandals. This may stem from a later rabbinic refinement which teaches that a disciple should do for his teacher anything that a slave would do except take off his shoes.
* 3:12 The separation of the good and the bad is compared to the procedure by which a farmer separates wheat and chaff. The winnowing fan was a fork-like shovel with which the threshed wheat was thrown into the air. The kernels fell to the ground while the light chaff was blown off by the wind to be gathered and burned up.
Scripture text: New American Bible with revised New Testament copyright © 1986,1970, Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.
Vince Del Greco
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (1990) (Eds. Brown, Fitzmyer & Murphy)