Isaiah 11:1 – 10
This Sunday, we will hear, once again, from the Book of the prophet Isaiah; last week, it was from chapter 2, this week, it will be from chapter 11. The passage we will hear on Sunday is, perhaps, one of the best known prophecies of the coming of Jesus. Since it is in the early part of the Book of Isaiah, we know that it is part of the prophecy of Isaiah himself, who prophesied 742 – 685BC. Chapters 1 – 12 probably address the time of the reigns of Jotham and Ahaz. You will recall that Ahaz formed an alliance with Syria to counter the Assyrians; Ahaz even tried to force Judah to join their coalition as they joined Syria in armed rebellion against Assyria. Their rebellion was disastrous since Assyria was much more powerful. As we’ll see in a few minutes, there is great debate as to the exact meaning of the text but scripture scholars see that Isaiah is foretelling that a remnant – a “stump” is left of Jesse’s descendants.
Let’s read some of the previous chapter (10:1 – 12) to see the historical setting for the prophecy. As you see in the footnotes, Isaiah presents Assyria as being used by God to punish Israel. Assyria has other plans, but God will not allow Assyria to carry them out. As we read the passage we will hear on Sunday, we see that it is a wonderfully poetic passage, filled with symbolism. It is also closely linked to 7:14 and 9:1 – 6; let’s read these first. All three passages (7:14, 9:1 – 6 and 11:1 – 10, which we will hear on Sunday) describe the ideal king who will come from David’s line. In the passage we will hear on Sunday, his charismatic gifts are enumerated in three pairs and his rule is seen as the inauguration of that hoped-for reign of idyllic peace, justice and worldwide knowledge of God.
1 But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.
Shoot . . . stump: There are several conflicting interpretations of the symbolism of this passage. Some say that Isaiah is foretelling that, with the Babylonian Exile, the Davidic dynasty was going to be destroyed; only a stump would remain and from it would arise the new shoot, the messianic King. Others assert that the image merely suggests that the dynasty has produced a new branch. Still others see here a condemnation of the kings from the time of Solomon to the time of Uzziah, when Isaiah began to prophecy. They see here the call for a new beginning, which is to spring from the very origin from which David sprang – Jesse, his father.
Jesse: David’s father.
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,
spirit of the LORD: this life-giving breath – ראח – that we first encountered in Genesis 2, comes from Yahweh (LORD) to men and endows them with extraordinary power, insight and wisdom.
spirit of wisdom…: This verse is the source of the traditional names of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The Septuagint and the Vulgate read “piety” for fear of the LORD in its first occurrence, and then piety in the second one, thus listing seven gifts.
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.
strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth…breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked: the king’s judgements are compared to a chastening rod and a hot, lethal breath. The severe divine judgments are to be meted out in a manner that is best described with apocalyptic imagery.
5 Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.
band around his waist… belt upon his hips: the “band” or “belt” were worn next to the body. This imagery indicated that justice and fidelity were to be as close to the king as these two garments. See Ephesians 6:13 – 17 for similar imagery.
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.
the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb: This picture of the idyllic harmony of paradise is a dramatic symbol of the universal peace and justice of messianic times. This imagery is found also is Sumerian mythology of Enki and Ninhursag where it is said: “The lion kills not, and the wolf snatches not the lamb.” The imagery in this verse suggests that the Messianic era will be a paradise restored.
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.
all my holy mountain… the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD: all of land that God has created, not just Jerusalem. Notice, even at this early date, universal knowledge of God is foretold.
10 On that day, The root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, Him the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious.
… The Gentiles shall seek out: the whole world, not just Israel, will share in the coming salvation. Some scholars think that this last verse is a post-exilic addition describing the restoration of Judah from the Babylonian exile and the subsequent reunion of Israel and Judah. They claim that it has been added here to the original Isaian prophecy because of the mention of the “root of Jesse.”
These verses are filled with images that inspire both fear (“he will strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked”) and hope (“he shall judge the poor with justice and decide aright for the land’s afflicted”). And, in the end, there will be such peace and harmony that “the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.” We see a clear judgement against the ruthless and the wicked and a recognition of the plight of the poor and the afflicted. This is certainly the message that Jesus presented during his public ministry.
Matthew 3: 1 – 12
This week, we hear from Matthew’s Gospel. Remember, that each liturgical year features a particular gospel; this year features Matthew. Let’s quickly review the “who, what, when, where and to whom” of this Gospel.
WHO? Traditionally Matthew/Levi, former tax collector and apostle; modern scholars identify him as either a Jewish Christian or Gentile Christian, not an eye witness to Jesus’ ministry
WHAT? Gospel of Matthew
WHEN? At least after 70AD, probably after 80AD
WHERE? Probably Antioch, Syria
WHY? To help Jewish converts see that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies
TO WHOM? Jewish converts to Christianity
We will want to keep these important facts in mind as we hear from Matthew’s gospel throughout this liturgical year.
In the passage we hear on Sunday, Matthew takes up the order of Jesus’ ministry found in the gospel of Mark, beginning with the preparatory preaching of John the Baptist. Let’s read Mark 1:1 – 6 first to see how Matthew uses Mark (cf. Luke 3: 2 – 17).
1 In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea
John the Baptist appeared: Unlike Luke, Matthew and Mark say nothing of the Baptist’s origins and does not acknowledge him as a relative of Jesus. Of course, John was well-known in the early Christian community and needed no introduction. The Gospel of Luke used him as a foil for Christ, comparing the annunciation of his birth, his birth and his naming with that of Jesus.
Desert of Judea: the barren region west of the Dead Sea extending up the Jordan valley.
2 (and) saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
Repent: as you will read in your footnotes, the Baptist calls for a change of heart and conduct, a turning of one’s life from rebellion to obedience towards God. Notice that it is the same admonition that Jesus gives at the beginning of his public ministry (4:17).
The kingdom of heaven is at hand: as you may read in your footnotes, “heaven” (literally, “the heavens”) is a substitute for the name “God” that was avoided by devout Jews of the time out of reverence. The expression “the kingdom of heaven” occurs only in the gospel of Matthew. It means the effective rule of God over his people. In its fullness it includes not only human obedience to God’s word, but the triumph of God over physical evils, and especially over death. In the expectation found in Jewish apocalyptic writing, the kingdom was to be ushered in by a judgment in which sinners would be condemned and perish, an expectation shared by the Baptist. This was modified in Christian understanding where the kingdom was seen as being established in stages, culminating with the parousia of Jesus.
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.’”
A voice of one crying out in the desert: Cf. Is 40:3; John 1:23 and footnote where you read that this is a repunctuation and reinterpretation of the text of Isaiah 40:3 which reads: “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord;” this verse referred to the return of the exiles in Babylon.
4 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.
John wore clothing: You will read in your footnote that the clothing of John recalls the austere dress of the prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). The expectation of the return of Elijah from heaven to prepare Israel for the final manifestation of God’s kingdom was widespread, and according to Matthew this expectation was fulfilled in the Baptist’s ministry (Matthew 11:11 – 14; 17:10 – 13).
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.
were being baptized: Ritual washing was practiced by various groups in Palestine between 150BC and 250AD. John’s baptism may have been related to the purificatory washings of the Essenes at Qumran. Notice that Matthew omits Mark’s “baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” It is possible that by the time Matthew’s gospel was written, this phrase might have seemed to assimilate John’s baptism to Christian baptism (cf. 3:11). Notice that only Matthew (3:14 – 15) expresses the difficulty about the reception by Jesus of a rite that involved repentance and remission.
Jordan River: you’ll recall that the ancient Israelites crossed the Jordan River to return to the Promised Land after their exile in Egypt. As he baptized them, John would call them to repent as they prepared for the coming of the Messiah who would lead them to the true Promised Land. It is significant, however, that John didn’t preach and baptize near one of the hundreds of mikvahs (of the 700 uncovered throughout Israel, 200 have been discovered in Jerusalem thus far; 50 of them are very near the Temple Mount). Rejecting the established ritual washing in one of these, John joined other disenchanted Jews at the Jordan for their baptisms.
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?
Pharisees and Sadducees: the former were lay people marked by devotion to the law, written and oral. They and the scribes, experts in the law, belonged predominantly to this group. The Sadducees were the priestly aristocratic party, centered in Jerusalem. They accepted as scripture only the first five books of the Old Testament, 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; cf Mark 8:11-13,15). The threatening words that follow are addressed to them rather than to “the crowds” as in Luke 3:7.
You brood of vipers: this epithet is found also in 12:34 and 23:33 and fits Matthew’s pattern of condemnation for the Jewish religious leaders who were responsible for the refusal of many Jews to believe in the Messiah.
The coming wrath: this eschatological reference (cf. Amos 5:18 – 20; Zeph 1:14 – 16) speaks of the judgment that will bring about the destruction of unrepentant sinners.
8 Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
Produce good fruit: you will recall that Jesus uses this image in his sermon on the Mount (cf. 7:15 – 18). There, he is calling for his listeners to be aware of false prophets.
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.
from these stones: the threat alludes to the Jew’s rejection of the Messiah and the Gentiles’ acceptance; their Church is the new Israel and the true people of God.
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.
the ax lies at the root of the trees: this could be a reference to the stump of Jesse that we read in our first reading. Sometimes, a tree needs to be cut down to its stump to be regenerated; repentance is the term for that in human life.
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.
Baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire: 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. However, some see the holy Spirit and fire as synonymous, and the effect of this “baptism” as either purification or destruction. See the note on Luke 3:16 Both Mt and Lk add “fire” which could refer to the appearance of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
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.”
His winnowing fan is in his hand: The discrimination between the good and the bad is compared to the procedure by which a farmer separates wheat and chaff. The winnowing fan was a forklike shovel with which the threshed wheat was thrown into the air. The kernels fell to the ground; the light chaff, blown off by the wind, was gathered and burned up.
Romans 15:4 – 9
We hear from Paul’s letter to the Romans. It continues the theme of universal salvation that we have heard in the first two readings.
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,
Think in harmony: a Greco-Roman ideal. Not rigid uniformity of thought and expression but thoughtful consideration of other people’s views finds expression here.
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.
Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you: True oneness of mind is found in pondering the ultimate mission of the Church: to bring it about that God’s name be glorified throughout the world and that Jesus Christ be universally recognized as God’s gift to all humanity. Paul here prepares his addressees for the climactic appeal he is about to make.
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.”
As we continue in this season of Advent, we hear all three readings talk about God’s hope for humankind. Isaiah speaks about the one who will have the spirit of God and who will be able to lead all of creation to the full knowledge of the Lord. John the Baptist calls everyone to acknowledge their sins and repent so that they can bear good fruit and so be the wheat that goes to be stored in the barn – a powerful image of being welcomed into heaven. And, Paul calls for endurance in the ways of the faith that will call even the Gentiles to hear them sing the praises of God. This is the true purpose of Advent!