“What is the context?” This is a critically important question that moves across all fields of study and inquiry. In scientific work – what are all the variables (the context) of an experiment or observation? In the discipline of sociology – what is the context of the lived situations of peoples or a specific grouping? In literature – what is the context in which an author wrote? In the study of Scripture – what is the full context of a particular verse? The awareness of context is a critical component needed in order to fully understand a situation or even a person.
“What did you go out to the desert to see?” asks our Lord – referring to John the Baptist – in today’s gospel (Mt. 11:2-11). “A reed swayed by the wind? … Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet?” John indeed was a prophet says our Lord precisely because – the gospel reveals – he lived not just in one but in two contexts.
John lived fully in the context of our world and he did not seek to escape it. He was not naive in any sense of the term – this realism, in fact, is what eventually brought him to being imprisoned and finally executed. John recognized the sinfulness of his time and the abuses of power which were occurring. He did not feign ignorance, turn a blind eye nor wrap himself up in a cocoon of entertainment. John saw the reality of the limited human condition but his perception did not end there – rather, he saw further. (This is the saving grace which set John apart and which in fact sets all prophets apart.) John perceived the deeper reality at work; a more fundamental context possible to choose.
John saw the dawning of the Kingdom of God and he made the choice – even while living within the context of this world – to set his life by the context and the horizon of the Kingdom of God. “What did you go out to see…?” asks our Lord. “A reed swayed by the wind?” “No,” the gospel concludes for us, “you went to see a prophet.” So, when John’s disciples arrive and ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come…?” Jesus answers by pointing to that which John has been living his whole life in anticipation of – the very Kingdom of God. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
The prophet lives fully aware of the context of this world; but fully guided by the context of the Kingdom of God. This is why the prophet is anything but a “reed swayed by the wind”; precisely because he or she lives by that which is greater than this world. The prophet sees the coming of God’s Kingdom shining through and transforming the very weak and limited context of this world.
“In Christ, God works his plan,” I recently read, “not in the extra-ordinariness of the miracles or in the mystery of esoteric magic, but in the ordinariness of mercy and in the mystery of compassion.” When good news is announced to the poor, when miracles of charity and justice are worked, when life is found exactly where there was thought only to be death, when self is forgotten in order to serve the poor and the weak – the Kingdom of God shines forth and is present.
The Kingdom of God – this is the true and real context for us who are in Christ Jesus. We do indeed live fully in the context of this world but we are continually guided and formed by the context and horizon of God’s Kingdom. Like our brother John the Baptist – who was greatest of those born of women yet less than the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven – we too are meant to be more than mere “reeds swayed by the wind…”