Are you the one?
Week of Sunday December 12: Advent 4
Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ 4Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.10This is the one about whom it is written,“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
I used to understand this reading as Matthew dealing with the difficulty of John the Baptist. Even today John the Baptist has his disciples and is considered the one to follow instead of Jesus. (The Mandaeans.) In Matthew, John is highly praised, but still far subordinate to than Jesus. Bill Loader says there is not enough historical evidence to do anything other than speculate on any kind of friction between John and Jesus. Despite this, Matthew’s Christians would obviously want to show Jesus was superior to John.
John has another purpose in this part of Matthew. Petty reminds us of Matthew’s presentation of Jesus as a second Moses. (Parallels include Jesus sermon on the Mount/Moses recieinv the law on the mountain, the slaughter of babpies by Pharoah and Herod, 40 years in the wilderness/40 days in the wilderness, a Mary in each man’s life etc.) Petty notes that on
this theme, Matthew contains five "books" which correspond to the five books of Moses.
Our text marks the beginning of the third book (11:2-13:54).
The major theme of book three is the problem of unbelief among Jesus' people. Not only do Bethsaida, Chorazin, Capernaum face a day of judgment (11:20-23), not only do the pharisees oppose him (12:1-6), and get the law all wrong, not only is the synagogue a place of disability (12:9-14), even John the Baptist has doubts! What a stunning introduction to the problem of unbelief in Israel.
Writing after the destruction of Jerusalem, Matthew was dealing with the growth of the Gentile Church. As challenging as that may have been, perhaps the larger challenge was the rejection of Jesus by his own people, the Jews. Matthew says of John that
among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
He is providing words of Jesus that explain and rationalise the Jewish hostility to Christianity. If even John the Baptist, who baptised Jesus, has his doubts, why are we surprised that the synagogues so thoroughly reject Jesus?
This pericope may incidentally show a change in emphasis from John’s ministry to that of Jesus. John Petty again:
Not only is Jesus different from popular expectation, he's also different from John's expectation. Jesus has not taken an ax to any trees, and has not burned any "chaff" with "unquenchable fire." He has not led a revolt, nor caused any prison walls to fall. John might well wonder, "Are you the coming one, or should we look for another?"
I think it is easy to overstate this. There’s still burning and judgement in the words Mathew ascribes to Jesus throughout the gospel.
What amazes and delights me in this week’s reading, is its grounding in the Old Testament prophets. Despite his approval of burning and judgement, Matthew does not get diverted into lurid visions of heaven and hell. He has a practical gospel. When John asks if Jesus is the one, Jesus replies
Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.
This is the practical gospel, which works with the poor and the sick and suffering. John Petty points out that at this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has not yet, in fact, healed a deaf person. This fact highlights the validity of commentary from Loader:
... the list of Jesus’ deeds is more than a summary of his activity thus far. It is a patchwork of texts from Isaiah (29:18; 35:5-6; 42:8,17; 26:19; 61:1). This is more than a borrowing of phrases. It is a claim that the prophetic predictions of healing in the last days are coming true. The prophetic vision of a transformed society is beginning to be realised in the ministry of Jesus. Matthew shares the views of some of his contemporaries that the Messiah would do such deeds, including raise dead people to life. We find a similar thought expressed in one of the documents found at Qumran, using similar prophetic texts. This kind of thinking obviously informed people’s interpretation and portrayal of Jesus’ ministry.
Matthew is not so much quoting what Jesus has done as listing off what the Messiah is like according to what we now call the Old Testament tradition.
The list given to John is very similar to the instructions given to the disciples in the previous chapter in Matthew:
As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. 9Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, 10no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food. (10:8-10)
Here is a model for the church. Here is a sign that the kingdom has come near. This is what Jesus calls us to be.
In this most important message Jesus is sending to John, there are no lofty statements of doctrine, and no philosophical statements to be studied and understood. There is not a list of propositions to be believed, but simply a call to action. There is a simple cataloguing of the wrongs of the world, which are being put to right, one at a time. Of course, this is the doctrine!
The fact that it is refreshingly practical is an advent challenge. We are being asked how far we have strayed into trivialities and non essentials, and how much we are doing the work of the kingdom.
Andrew Prior December 2010
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.