While the four Gospels proclaim the same message about Jesus, each Evangelist gives unique insights into the Old Testament’s witness to Jesus. However, in today’s Gospel (Mt 3:1-12), Matthew aligns himself with the three other Evangelists in applying the words of Isaiah (Is 40:3) to John the Baptist:
A herald’s voice in the desert:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
Make straight His paths (Mt. 3:3; Mk 1:3; Lk 3:4; Jn 1:23)
Wherever crowds of people gather, there are many voices and many sounds, making it difficult to distinguish what is being said even directly to you.
John went into the quiet of the desert so that his voice might be heard, as St. Thomas Aquinas observes: “He was in the desert so that men might listen to him more tranquilly … for in the desert only zealous men were going out to hear him“(Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, 3).
The Gospel of John declares: “This man came as a witness to give testimony to the light” (Jn 1:7). Thomas explains that John’s preaching and baptism oriented people towards Christ, “… we are brought to the knowledge of spiritual things through things that are familiar to us” (Commentary on Matthew, 3).
Some Fathers of the Church identify John as the voice, while Jesus is the explicit Word of God, as Thomas reflects: “The revelation of divine mysteries was not made through John except so far as he announced Christ and through Christ the Word was revealed: ‘The only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father has revealed Him’ (Jn 1:18)” (Commentary on Matthew, 3).
John urges people to penance. Thomas recalls the words of St. Augustine: “No man who has the use of free-will can begin the new life, unless he firstly repent of his former life” (Sermon 351). As John proclaims, preparation for the way of the Lord begins with seriously addressing our lives. Otherwise, changes at the coming of the Lord would be no deeper than those of mischievous school children rushing to their seats when they hear their teacher approaching.
John speaks directly to the consciences of the people: “Bring forth fruit worthy of penance” (Mt 3:7). Many took his message seriously: “They were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins” (Mt 3:6).
John’s mission was to alert his listeners that One is coming “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Mt 3:3). John’s first message was his own life, as Thomas notes: “John bore witness to Christ by his life” (Commentary on Matthew, 3).
The Old Testament promised a better life for those who kept the Law but John proclaims a spiritual kingdom, as Thomas teaches: “John was the first to teach that the concept of the kingdom of heaven was not to be understood as being primarily based upon earth” (Commentary on Matthew, 3).
John especially challenges the Pharisees and Sadducees: “You brood of vipers. Who told you to flee the wrath to come? …The ax is at the root of the tree. Every tree that does not bear fruit will be cut down and cast into the fire… His winnowing fan is in his hands and He will clear His threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Mt 3:7,10,12).
Thomas grants that these men “were speaking well on many points” but he perceives basic flaws: “A Pharisee is one who is set apart from common life on account of his observances … Phares means ‘division,’ which is opposed to charity. And these men were completely separated from other men, as if they were to have a superabundance of the Holy Ghost” (Commentary on Matthew, 3).
Thomas says of the Sadducees: “Other men, namely the Sadducees, were saying that they were just [righteous] men on account of certain special observances of the Law. These same men were not receiving the Prophets, nor were they affirming that after the corruption of the body the soul would be raised again, nor the existence of anything spiritual… usurping justice for themselves; against whom it is written: ‘For they, not knowing the justice of God, and seeking to establish their own, have not submitted themselves to the justice of God’ (Rom 10:3) … even though they appeared to be more just” (Commentary on Matthew, 3).
Penance has a purpose, as Thomas recognizes, but John’s message is not just what we need to do but more significantly what God will do: “He firstly advises penance; and secondly, he announces salvation” (Commentary on Matthew, 3).
We assume that after we make the initial steps to prepare for the Lord, the Lord, satisfied with our sincere efforts, comes to our help. Thomas reminds us that experience shows the futility of this approach.
Thomas insists that God gives us the strength to do what He asks us to do. While we are asked to prepare the way for the Lord, we can’t prepare His way unless He comes to help us even in the preparation, as Thomas explains: “Now it seems more suitable to have said, ‘prepare your way’ to receive the Lord. But it should be noted that we were so weak that we could not get near God, unless He came to us” (Commentary on Matthew, 3).
Historically, Jesus didn’t wait until humanity already had spiritual and moral integrity before entering our world. Rather, the Savior came after humans knew from their own emptiness that they desperately needed a Savior.
We need God’s help to “prepare” for Jesus’ deeper coming. According to Thomas, on our part, “faith” prepares the way: “Faith, which comes by hearing: ‘That Christ may dwell by faith in your hearts’ (Eph 3:17).” Thomas comments: “We receive Him through a faith which is most strong because it is the substance of the realities we hope for – that is, it makes these desired realities exist within us” (Commentary on the Letter to the Ephesians, 172).
Charity is also necessary to prepare the way, as Thomas affirms: “‘Prepare’ pertains to charity, which is necessary for salvation” (Commentary on Matthew, 3). Thomas explains: “A tree without roots, or a house lacking a foundation are destroyed easily. In a similar way, a spiritual edifice not rooted and founded in charity cannot last” (Commentary on the Letter to the Ephesians, 172).
Besides his call to penance, John makes another promise: “I indeed baptize you in water unto penance, but He who will come after me, is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear; He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire” (Mt 3:11).
Thomas affirms the interior effect that Christ gives to those who receive His baptism: “One is the power of efficacy, by which He interiorly cleanses the soul from the stain of sin. Christ has this power as God … John, in stating that the Holy Spirit came down upon Christ, teaches that it is Christ alone who baptizes interiorly by His own power” (Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on John, 276).
In the second reading today Paul reminds the Romans, (Rom 15:4-9) of God’s patience, “the God of all patience and encouragement” (Rm 15:5).
Can we be expected to have patience, as well? Thomas acknowledges: “It seemed exceedingly difficult for a mere man to be able to imitate the example of Christ” (Commentary on the Romans, 1149).
Thomas explains that God gives us the patience, which we don’t have: “God is the giver, ‘You are my patience’ (Ps 71:5)… and of comfort, who bestows spiritual consolation, ‘the Father of mercies and God of all comfort’ (2 Cor 1:3)…”
Paul tells us that we should extend the patience to others that God gives us: “Accept one another, as Christ accepted you” (Rom 15:7). Thomas reflects, “Because of the things written…namely, the examples of Christ and the other saints, receive one another in the love of charity, namely that one bear things that pertain to another, just as he would like to be helped as far as charity pertains, and so that one may bear with one another…” (Commentary on the Romans, 1151).
We have the example of Christ for ourselves, as Thomas observes, “as Christ also has received you, took you under His care and protection” (Commentary on the Romans, 1152).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
References to St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on Romans are taken from the translation begun by Fr. Fabian R. Larcher, O.P. and edited by J. Mortensen and E. Alarcón. The translation was published by the Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, Lander, Wyoming, in 2012, pp. 394-397.