“What did the President know, and when did he know it?” Sounds like a modern question, but it was really asked 46 years ago. The President in question was Nixon. The person being questioned was former White House Counsel John Dean, and the questioner was Senator Howard Baker, Jr., Republican from Tennessee. Baker was actually trying, at the time, to protect Nixon (he switched sides when he found out the truth), and we all know how all that ended.
But it’s an interesting question when posed rhetorically: What do any of us know, and when do we know it? Our Gospel lesson today wonders the same thing.
“John the Baptist, in prison because of his confrontation with Herod over the king’s unlawful marriage, sends disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the one they have been expecting.
“Matthew makes it clear that there is no question in his own mind as to the identity of Jesus. He writes: “When John heard in prison of the works of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to him”. In other words, from his post-Easter perspective, Matthew has no trouble referring to Jesus as “the Christ.”
“But the Baptist apparently had his doubts. Why? Among the varieties of Judaisms of the first century—among, for example, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes—there was a corresponding variety of images of the Messiah. Some expected the Anointed One to emerge from the priestly caste. Others looked for a prophet like Moses. Many expected a son of David cut from the same combative cloth, i.e., a warrior king who would defeat their enemies and establish political autonomy for the people of Judea. John had preached a coming Judgment Day, when the ax would be laid to the root.”
The Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the common people of Israel would likely have had to strain their eyes to see any of those expectations fulfilled in Jesus. And so John, despite having ushered Jesus onto the stage, so to speak, just has to ask.
In turn, “Jesus had to reply in such a way that John would have no doubt about the genuineness of his messianic activity, and the message he sent back to John was about the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised, and the poor having good news brought to them.”
In other words, you can know that I am the Messiah because order, God’s order, was being restored in the world. Things that were cast down were being raised up, the old were made new, the broken made whole, chaos was being brought to order. God’s first act in creation, when all was darkness and emptiness we are told in Genesis, was to bring order to the chaos, and in God’s action of sending His Son to be among us, He was doing just that once again. From here on out, Jesus is saying, there is the sure hope of being made whole. There is the sure path to God: you now know the way, the truth, and the life.
What do we know, and when do we know it? We know Jesus is the Messiah because of what we see Him doing around us, how He tends the sick, gives rest to the weary, blesses the dying, soothes the suffering, pities the afflicted, and shields the joyous. And when we, like John the Baptist, have our doubts and fears, we too can send to Him in prayer. Jesus might just answer back, What do you hear and see?