“Ask a Priest: Did John the Baptist Stumble in His Faith?”

Q: Can you reconcile the seeming disparity between the question of St. John the Baptist coming from prison concerning Jesus as the messiah, and his earlier experience of baptizing Jesus and hearing the words from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased”? Our priest in his homily yesterday seemed to see this as a big problem and somehow it discredited St. John the Baptist. – Y.G.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: John’s question has been interpreted in various ways. Some say that his question was really for the benefit of his followers, some of whom might have had doubts about Jesus.

Others take the question in Matthew 11:3 (“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”) at face value — that John has his own difficulties about Jesus as the messiah.

Both interpretations have merit. The act of faith in Christ isn’t a once-and-done kind of thing. Probably all of us who profess Jesus as our savior have, at one time or another, had our difficulties in trusting him or even questioning his will for us. We wonder if this is the spouse I really should have married, or whether we really were called to have that sixth child, or whether this monastery I entered 30 years ago is really the place for me.

Faith is a journey, and sometimes we lose sight of the star, as the magi did. That is when faith tells us to keep moving forward.

To put it another way, John’s question might have reflected his humanness, in the sense that he too didn’t always understand Jesus. Perhaps John thought the messiah would act differently. The footnote in the New American Bible on Matthew 11:3 says, “The question probably expresses a doubt of the Baptist that Jesus is the one who is to come (cf. Mal 3:1) because his mission has not been one of fiery judgment as John had expected (Mt 3:2).”

This doesn’t detract from John’s greatness. Jesus himself said that “among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.”

Rather, John’s question shows his human side. And that gives us confidence to know if, we have our own difficulties at times, we aren’t unique.

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