'The farmer waits for the precious crop from the Earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains...' -- James 5:7

Years ago, one of my high school religion classes gave me a unique Christmas gift: a banner depicting Santa Claus with the question underneath, "Are you the one who is to come, or shall we wait for another?"

It's the same question the

disciples of John the Baptizer ask Jesus in Sunday's Gospel (Matthew 11:2-11).

Jesus' response springs from our Isaiah (35:1-6a,10) passage. When God comes to save the people, "Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing."

Matthew's Jesus adds something about lepers being cleansed and the dead raised, but the idea is the same: Though He's the one John's been looking forward to, He's not the Messiah people had been expecting. He's a different Messiah, someone who announces a Good News that takes the spotlight off Himself and shines it on the people.

Most first-century-CE Israelites presumed that, when this special, anointed individual finally arrived, their only problem would be finding a good seat from which to watch the show. He'd take care of everything. That appears to be one of the reasons Matthew adds Jesus' remark that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than even the prophet John.

Patient workers
In this context, the "kingdom of heaven" is Jesus' way of referring to God acting effectively in this world. In other words, those who notice God working in their everyday lives are the most important people on the face of the Earth. They actually help the blind see and the lame run. They do what's necessary to change our planet's status quo.

Of course, the main characteristic such people must possess is patience. Though we're confident God is going to help us change things, our hands are still feeble, our knees weak and our hearts frightened.

Perhaps James is right in saying (James 5:7-10) that farmers make good Christians: They, of all people, must constantly wait for things to happen. Rarely does any of their work bring instant results. Only someone who has faith in the future will plant seeds.

Prophets, real or fake
It's significant that, in our Gospel passage, Jesus speaks about the Baptizer as a prophet. Against popular wisdom, a biblical prophet usually doesn't go around predicting the future. As Scripture scholar Rev. Bruce Vawter, CM, always insisted, a prophet is the conscience of the people -- a person who tells us what God wants us to do in our everyday lives.

How do we tell real prophets from fake prophets? Religious leaders constantly try to convince their people that they alone speak for God. We know a real prophet can never profit from prophesying. Who would pay someone for telling them what they don't want to hear?

Real prophets never wear fine clothes or live in palaces. On the contrary, like John, they're rarely welcome among the good folk. Often, we have to leave our safe religious institutions and go out into "the wilderness" to even encounter them.