Why didn’t John recognize Jesus?


By Father Thom Heenen
Question Box

Q. Why didn’t John the Baptist recognize Jesus, even though they were cousins?
A. This is something that has always puzzled me, too. I think we could reasonably assume that, as second cousins, they would have known each other. Perhaps when Jesus’ family traveled from

Fr. Hennen

Nazareth in the north to Jerusalem annually for Passover and other celebrations they would have met up with or even stayed with their family in the hill country south of the city. Yet, when Jesus shows up to be baptized in the Jordan, we get the impression that John did not really recognize him as his relative, let alone as the longed-for Messiah.

In Matthew’s Gospel, from prison John even sends his disciples to ask if Jesus is “the one who is to come” or if they should look for another (Mt 11:2-3). But earlier we find John protesting that he should be baptized by Jesus and not the other way around (Mt 3:14). It certainly seemed that John knew who Jesus was then, so why second guess himself later? Luke’s Gospel indicates that John recognized Jesus even before they were born, as he leapt in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s greeting at the Visitation (Lk 1:41). John’s Gospel has John the Baptist immediately and confidently pointing out Jesus as the “Lamb of God.” Yet, twice John says, “I did not know him” (Jn 1:31, 33). It is confusing.


I think it is important to remember that we are trying to meld together different but corroborating accounts. The fact that they are not exactly identical adds, in fact, to their overall credibility. It does seem that John knew Jesus and even understood something about his identity and his mission, but that does not mean he knew or understood fully. As with Jesus’ own disciples there is a sense of gradual revelation. In this way, I think we can identify with John the Baptist. After all, we know Jesus and yet we don’t know him. We are always striving to know him better, to believe more wholeheartedly that he is who he is and to allow that faith to bear fruit in our lives.

Jesus’ answer to John’s query from prison is simply, “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” (Mt 11:4-5). John would have recognized in this reply the words of the prophet Isaiah and had his answer. This may have been a coded way for Jesus to reassure his cousin and it was undoubtedly an important way for the Gospel writer to establish Jesus’ identity for a largely Jewish audience and for future generations.

Q. Given all that Jesus suffered for us, why must I do penance for my sins? Wasn’t Jesus’ redemption enough?
A. The redemption that Jesus won for us by his passion, death and resurrection was absolutely enough, more than enough in fact. But doing penance following confession is not about “paying for” our sins. If that were the case, we would be trying in vain to save ourselves. Rather, penance is meant to be medicinal, like applying salve to a wound. It is not punishment, but a way of opening ourselves through prayer or some small denial of self to the healing work of Christ the “Divine Physician.”

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and Vicar General for the Diocese of Davenport. Send questions to messenger@davenportdiocese.org)

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