Following the death of his father Herod the Great in 4BC, Herod Antipas was appointed tetrarch of Galilee by the Roman emperor. Some years later he married Herodias who had previously been married to his brother Philip. John the Baptist had preached against Herod doing do, for which John was thrown into prison at Tiberias, Herod’s capital city on the Sea of Galilee.
John’s disciples were apparently allowed to visit him in prison. Realizing that he would not be released, John knew his work was over, his mission completed. But who was the one God was sending, the one for whom John had been called to prepare the way? John wanted his disciples to both check out Jesus, and, if Jesus were the one, to become his disciples. He had been preaching that when the Messiah, God’s chosen Saviour, came, he would come in a very striking, powerful and judgemental way, and he was bewildered that Jesus wasn’t carrying out his mission in the way John had anticipated and prophesied (note that even the best and holiest of us can have doubts and lapses of faith!). Jesus responds to the disciples of John by quoting from Isaiah 35:5-6, which is today’s first reading. By that moment in history, the signs from Isaiah 35- the eyes of the blind being opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame recovering their mobility and the mute being able to speak – were considered indicators of the coming of the long-awaited Messiah, which is why the gospel writers go to great lengths to include such miracles in their portrayals of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus basically tells John’s disciples, “Go tell John what is taking place. He’ll be able to read the signs. And tell him from me:” Don’t lose faith in me.”
One might wonder why John the Baptist receives so much attention in the gospels. His ministry, though relatively brief, had made a tremendous impact not only in the local vicinity but also in Jewish communities distant from the Holy Land. Paul will encounter people as far away as Ephesus and Antioch who had been baptized by John (see Acts 18:25 and 19:3). Years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, many people who had received John’s baptism or had been influenced by his ministry had not yet made the transition to be followers of Jesus. Rather than turn these people away, the scriptural writers applauded their commitment to God through John by emphasizing the important role John and his ministry played in God’s plan…but bring them from John to Jesus by showing how even John saw himself as one preparing the way for Jesus. When we reach out to help people in need, they may sometimes get fixated on us and see us as their “saviour.” It is important that, like John the Baptist, we can lead them from dependence on us, who can fail them, to faith in Jesus, who will never fail them.