Years ago, some of my high school students gave me a banner, sporting a large image of Santa Claus with John the Baptist's question from Sunday's Gospel (Matthew 11:2-11) underneath: "Are you 'the one who is to come' or should we look for another?"

In a commentary on this passage, one scholar mentions something with which all scholars of the Christian Scriptures agree: "These verses contain a school debate, probably of post-resurrection origin, over the nature of Jesus' mission, held between disciples of John the Baptist and Christians."

Many naively believe that all John's disciples instantly switched their allegiance to Jesus after the Baptizer's martyrdom. Such a general shift never happened.

John and Jesus

Some of John's followers eventually became Jesus' followers, believing Him to be the Messiah they were anticipating. But most who thought John was the Messiah continued to do so even after his death.

Historians tell us there were still followers of John active in their beliefs centuries after Jesus' death and resurrection. That provides the basis for the scholarly observation: John's disciples and Jesus' disciples debated their mentors' merits long after they had completed their earthly ministries.

Part of the argument John's followers employed revolved around a definition of terms. If Jesus were the Messiah, He certainly wasn't the Messiah the Israelites were anticipating. To call the Galilean carpenter "Messiah" was tantamount to creating a new definition for the title.

The fact that this Gospel containing John's question is included both in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark, tells us that Matthew and Luke copied it from a very early but hypothetical Christian document (called "Q") that contained sayings of Jesus that circulated before any of our four Gospels were written. Its inclusion by Matthew and Luke demonstrates its importance for even pre-Gospel Christians.

It also raises an interesting question. Just what Messiah are we supposed to imitate? Matthew and Luke agree that it's one who makes certain "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."

No wonder both evangelists add Jesus' comment, "And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me."

Jesus conceives His ministry to be a total giving of Himself to others. That's why we keep looking for "someone else," someone not as demanding, someone who gives to us, instead of insisting we give to others.

Real Messiah

Seven hundred years before Jesus' birth, Isaiah believed Yahweh called him to a parallel ministry (Isaiah 35:1-6,10): "Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those whose hearts are frightened, 'Be strong, fear not! Here is your God.' The eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the dumb will sing."

Throughout the history of faith, God's followers have always been tempted to expect a Santa Claus figure to suddenly step into their lives and give them the "goodies"' that will make their lives a happy, bearable experience.

St. James (James 5:7-10 ) doesn't let us forget what both Isaiah and Jesus discovered: We're truly fulfilled and happy only when we're concerned with others' needs and not our own. "You too must be patient," he writes. "Steady your hearts....Do not grumble against one another, my brothers and sisters."

Faith-filled fulfillment is a life-time process. What Jesus achieved, we can achieve. If we're convinced of His unique messiah-ship, we can pull it off.

(12/13/07)