[December 15, 2013] Today, the Third Sunday of Advent has this for its Gospel text. John the Baptist sends from prison a messenger to Jesus to ask Him whether He was indeed the “Coming One.” Jesus tells the messengers to report to John what they see and hear, and He describes what it is that He wants them to see and hear when they consider Him. This is the first part. It is about Who Jesus really is versus the expectations that John might have of Him. So far He has not turned out the way that John expected!
In the second part Jesus turns to the people and asks them what they expected to find when they went out to see John. People may have misguided expectations. But John is who he is, and like Jesus Himself, he is far more than people are prepared for in terms of their expectations. Nevertheless, Jesus says, as great as John is, what Jesus will bring about after is greater than even John could have imagined.
That is the gist of it. The entire passage is about misguided expectations. We usually only find what we are looking for. So if what we are looking for, what we expect to find, is misguided, we can sometimes be blind to the treasure that lies before us. Jesus does not measure up to our expectations, and so we are disappointed. But this is only because our expectations are so miserably low! What gives us the openness to be receptive to what is totally unexpected, to what is truly new, completely unrivaled in our experience? When something does not match any of our categories, can we still be open to it? Or are we bound to be only disappointed. This is the problem. If we cannot solve it, our lives will only be mediocre. We will be going through life as if we were half-asleep.
Background (Matthew 4:12—10:42)
“Hearing that John had been arrested, [Jesus] withdrew to Galilee” (Matthew 4:12). This verse comes immediately after Jesus’ testing in the wilderness. As far as Matthew’s gospel is concerned, it is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. It begins with the arrest and imprisonment of John the Baptist.
As we recall, John had announced to the people concerning the Coming One that He was at the door, and He was coming to execute God’s judgment on the human race. “Even now the axe is being laid to the root of the trees, so that any tree failing to produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown on the fire.” The Coming One is He Who will baptize everyone in either the Holy Spirit or in fire. Like a farmer on the threshing floor, “His winnowing-fan is in His hand; He will clear His threshing-floor and gather His wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn in a fire that will never go out.”
This, apparently, is what John was expecting of Jesus. Before he was arrested, he had identified Jesus as the Coming One, for when he baptized Jesus “he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down on Him. And suddenly there was a voice from heaven, ‘This is My Son, the Beloved; My favor rests on Him.” Then Jesus disappeared into the wilderness. By the time Jesus returned to Galilee, John’s public ministry was over; he had been arrested. He had done what he was supposed to do. Now everything was up to Jesus, the Coming One. Did Jesus disappoint him?
When John was arrested, Jesus “withdrew” from Judea to Galilee, “and leaving Nazara He went and settled in Capernaum, beside the lake …” Capernaum was going to be the base from which He would begin His work. He got Himself a home there and “from then onward Jesus began His proclamation with the message, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand,’” the same message John had been preaching (4:13, 17; see 3:2).
How close was the kingdom? Whether Jesus was fully cognizant of it yet, it turns out that He Himself was the coming of the kingdom. It was as close to Israel as He was; it was in fact in their midst and under their noses. In other words, it was pretty close. Yet it was not yet “manifest.” Jesus had simply taken up residence in Capernaum and was preaching that the kingdom was very close. He was a “preacher” like so many others. After John’s earth-shattering announcement, this is a very quiet beginning.
So, in 4:18-22 Jesus starts to collect disciples to Himself, no different than a common rabbi. “Come after me,” He tells Peter and Andrew. Matthew tells us of four fishermen who become his disciples. As a rabbi, these men and whoever else He may have recruited are going to be His apprentices. They were going to learn whatever He had to teach them, including a way of life, to live as He lived.
In 4:23 we learn that He then began to travel throughout Galilee, teaching in the synagogues as He also did in Capernaum. So He was not going to be a “residential rabbi,” situated in one place and having people come to Him; He was going to be an itinerant rabbi, traveling from town to town and taking His apprentices with Him.
But more, He was also going to be a “faith-healer” and exorcist. There were other healers and exorcists in Israel at the time; we know of them. This too was not unique. Even in the pagan world it was not unique, though there such people were called magicians. According to Matthew, Jesus healed “all kinds of disease and illness” and acquired quite a bit of notoriety, attracting people’s attention from the whole Syrian region: not only Galilee but also “the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and Transjordan.” Whoever was brought to Him, He cured, no matter whether it was a disease or a painful complaint or a case of possession or epilepsy or paralysis.
Jesus also began to attract large crowds who came to hear His teaching. The Sermon on the Mount begins, “He used to teach them,” and so it probably represents many occasions of teaching. He would go up on a mountain where a large crowd could gather to hear Him. Then He would sit and teach His disciples who presumably would be gathered in a semi-circle on the ground near to Him, while the crowd gathered around them to hear Him.
His teaching was different. He did not just quote and give commentary on passages. It “made a deep impression on the people because He taught them with authority,” unlike the scribes, the class of people who could read and write, and who made a living copying books and teaching people what was in them (7:28-29). As a healer and exorcist and also by His style of teaching Jesus was making His mark.
Then in chapters 8 and 9 Matthew gives us some details on Jesus’ itinerant ministry as He travelled to and from Capernaum. He can control the weather, we discover, though we hear about other rabbis who can also do that. Some things, however, begin to be truly remarkable. He says He can forgive a person their sins, and He backs up this claim with a miracle. We may not think much of that, but think about it. If I say I forgive you, I mean I forgive you whatever you may have done that offended me. This is not the same as my declaring that God forgives you. Who am I to authorize God’s forgiveness? This is what Jesus was doing. He was claiming to have this authority, to be acting at God’s behest.
Then He calls a tax collector to be one of His apprentices. This was surprising. Why would a rabbi choose a “sinner,” one who hadn’t even yet quit his sin? Matthew (probably “Levi”) was sitting at the tax office when Jesus called him. That got people’s attention too, especially when Jesus afterwards sat at table with Matthew and he brought all sorts of other “tax collectors and sinners” to dine with them. This puzzled the Pharisees, a class of rabbis with whose teachings was Jesus generally in agreement. Jesus says to his fellow rabbis, “It is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick … I came to call not the upright, but sinners.”
It is this language that began to grate on them, I think. “I came …” He says, like He were somebody special. Just like His presuming to forgive someone’s sins (the sins they committed against God). If He is so special, why if He preaches repentance did He not teach His apprentices to fast? Fasting was an important practice because it meant that you were mourning over your sins. If those who had come under His teaching were responding to His message of repentance, why did they not fast? Jesus’ answer must have shocked them: It was because He was the Bridegroom! How can the bridal party mourn while they are attending on the Bridegroom?
He was unique, He was telling them. He was bringing something new into Israel. His message was new cloth and needed to be sewn onto new cloth; it would tear the old cloth. His message was new wine and needed to be poured into new wineskins; it would cause old skins to burst. What was His message that made it new cloth and new wine? The thing that was really new was that He was saying that the time had come, that the Coming One (the Bridegroom) had arrived, and that HE was the One. This is the “good news,” the Gospel (good-spell). In other words, HE was the message.
The old cloth and the old wineskins probably is the way things are. Convention, custom, tradition: we are a conservative people; keep things the way they have been. Make things work better, of course, but radical changes are always suspicious and by nature are undesirable. They are destabilizing and in the past have caused a great deal of trouble. The Romans come and kill people. We do not want that.
What then is Jesus saying? He is saying that it can’t be helped. He IS something completely new and requires people to become “new” in order to accept Him, to accept what He is telling them. Can people become “new”?
Jesus is not saying that anyone should abandon Judaism. That is NOT what He means, though Christian “scribes” often insist it is. No, what Jesus is saying only makes sense within the context of Judaism. He is the Coming One expected by Judaism; He is the One whom the prophets of the Jewish Scriptures promised. He is that Bridegroom. So of course He is not suggesting that God is done with Judaism or that anyone should abandon it. What is “new” is that the time had come for what the prophets had promised to happen. According to the prophets, the people need to receive a new heart and a new spirit in order to be ready for it. They need to become new inside, in their spirit and in their heart. They need to be prepared for the completely unexpected. This is what being “new” means.
The time has come for Jesus to send His apprentices out to announce as John the Baptist had done and as Jesus was doing, that “the kingdom of heaven is close at hand,” and He imparts to them the authority that He had to exorcise demons and heal sicknesses. He chooses twelve for the task and sends them out. The instructions that Jesus gives them become another Sermon for the readers of Matthew’s gospel, a sermon about the church’s mission.
When He sends them out, He then continued His itinerancy on His own. Matthew says that after instructing them, “He moved on from there to teach and preach in their towns.” What does Matthew mean by “their towns”? Does “their” refer to the disciples? It seems so. But does Matthew mean their home towns, or the towns they had gone off to make their announcement? Probably the latter. Jesus followed behind them, going to all the towns that they themselves had visited. In other words, He sent them out to preparing His way, to get the towns ready for His arrival. Maybe.
In any case, Jesus’ notoriety has expanded a great deal, and as it has expanded, His message was also becoming a little clearer. He Himself was the fulfillment of what the Torah, the Prophets and the Psalms had promised.
The Reaction to Jesus Begins (11:2—12:50)
The reaction to Jesus and His message now begins to take place, in terms of how Matthew has organized his gospel. It culminates in chapter 16 verses 13—17 with Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus says to him, “Simon son of Jonah, you are a blessed man! Because it was no human agency that revealed this to you but My Father in heaven.”
Earlier, in the face of the reaction He was receiving, Jesus had prayed, “I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and of earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to little children. Yes, Father, for that is what it pleased you to do.” The learned and the clever are His fellow rabbis, and the little children are whoever has been simple enough to believe Him. He went on to say, “Everything [that has happened] has been delivered to Me by My Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (11:25-27).
His fellow rabbis (mostly the Pharisees) and the scribes understand what Jesus’ message is and they do not appreciate it. They think it is presumptuous and dangerous. They’ve seen it before and it did not turn out well then; they did not expect it to turn out well now. They start warning the simpler people not to be so naïve about Jesus; beware. The towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida and even Capernaum turn against Jesus. The opposition begins to develop. It comes to a verbal showdown in chapter 12 and Jesus draws the line. If they do not accept Him, others will, and they will face God’s judgment.
Nevertheless, it is only a verbal showdown. Before this, Jesus has done nothing in the face of this rejection. He just lets it go. He tells His disciples, “If anyone does not welcome you or listen to what you have to say, as you walk out of the house or town shake the dust from your feet.” And that is also all that He apparently has done. He just wipes His feet and move on. Where is the power, the strength? Is it only in words, making threats about God’s judgment? Show us! Instead, we see a display of weakness. Is Jesus really the Chosen One Who will baptize the world in fire?
John the Baptist Reacts Too (11:2-6)
The reaction to Jesus begins with some messengers sent to Jesus from John the Baptist. John wants to know, “Are You the One Who is to come, or are we to expect someone else?”
All this time, since Jesus began His ministry, John has been languishing in prison. Yet isn’t the Coming One supposed “to proclaim liberty to captives and release to those in prison”? Jesus does nothing to confront the powers that be. And when people do not accept His message that He is the Coming One, He does nothing. Aside from making this claim, everything else He does—calling apprentices, healing the sick, exorcising demons, and even controlling the weather—are things other rabbis have done or where currently doing. John was beginning to have doubts—not in the Messiah but in whether Jesus was the Messiah.
Jesus responds, “Go back and tell John what you hear and see; the blind see again, and the lame walk, those suffering from virulent skin-diseases are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” These are the kind of things described by Isaiah in his promises: Isaiah 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 42:18; 26:19; and 61:1. Even though you may have seen these things before, in My case they are signs of the presence of the kingdom of heaven. No, the time of God’s judgment has not yet come, yet nevertheless, the kingdom of heaven is in the midst of Israel, and these signs are indications of it.
Notice the first and the last items that Jesus mentions: “the blind see,” indicating not only the gift of physical sight but the opening of people’s spiritual eyes—Jesus is asking John to open his eyes—and “the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Jesus’ ministry is geared towards the poor. It is God’s mercy to the poor. The judgment on the rich will come another day. For now God is remembering the poor and the good news—of Jesus’ coming—gives them hope.
“And blessed is anyone who does not find me a cause of falling.” This last message is obviously meant for John. John will be blessed if he does not allow himself to be disappointed. His disappointment in Jesus will surely cause him to fall. Jesus is not what he expected, but Jesus does not apologize. He is doing exactly as the Father Who sent Him is telling Him to do. In order for John to accept Jesus, he must accept what he was not expecting; he must accept something that is completely new, something that does not fit any of his ideas, and indeed seems to run counter to them.
After all, when God called John, and John announced that the kingdom of heaven was close at hand, he surely expected that to mean the Day of Judgment was close at hand. This was what he was proclaiming. Instead Jesus is extending the mercy of God to the poor of the people. He is healing and exorcising demons and eating and drinking with sinners, and not even telling His disciples to fast.
Not to fast? His disciples should be lamenting their sins and weeping and wailing because of the judgment that is coming. If their repentance is acceptable to God they may be wheat on the great day when the threshing floor is cleaned. But if their repentance is faulty, they will be the chaff that is thrown in the unquenchable fire. Fasting was one of the important things that John had taught his apprentices. Yet Jesus seemed to be acting completely contrary to this message. Could John accept whatever it is that is going on with Jesus—the “new” thing?
If he can, then he will be blessed on the Day of Judgment, just as Jesus’ disciples are already blessed in the presence of Jesus (5:3-11). Blessing is what is promised by Moses to those who are faithful to God. This is a hint, for the blessing that we find at the conclusion of the Torah is the blessing of the Promised Land, which in the prophets is associated with the coming of the Messiah. When God blesses the people in the Promised Land in the days to come, the days of the Messiah, all these things will take place: “the blind see again, and the lame walk, those suffering from virulent skin-diseases are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Where Jesus is we find all the blessings of the Promised Land. He IS the Promised Land promised to those who are faithful to God.
Expectations about John (11:7-11a)
When the messengers leave, Jesus turns to the people. The issue just now was about what John was expecting of Jesus. But now Jesus wants to know what the people were expecting of John. “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swaying in the breeze?” this can have two meanings, either the reed is something very common and one would not have to go out into the desert to find one, or a reed is flimsy, swaying according to how the wind blows. Was John a shaky reed, weak and unreliable?
“No? Then what did you go out to see? A man wearing fine clothes?” Of course not. “Those who wear fine clothes are to be found in palaces.” Jesus does not mean this favorably. The rich are not likely to be God’s prophets.
“Then what did you go out for? To see a prophet? Yes.” John is a prophet of God, neither a common reed nor a reed that turns with the wind, nor is he some delicate rich person who can be bought by the highest bidder. He is a man sent from God.
“Yes, but I tell you, [he is] much more than a prophet: he is the one of whom Scripture says: ‘Look, I am going to send My messenger in front of You to prepare Your way before You.” If the quote is from Malachi 3:1, the “You” is the Coming One, the Messiah, the One Whom Jesus was claiming to be. John is greater than all the prophets because he was sent to prepare Jesus’ way. He is the Elijah who is to come who will prepare the way for the coming of God by calling on the people to repent. If, though, the quote is from Exodus 23:20, referring to an angel (literally a “messenger”) whom God will send to go head of Israel to lead Israel into the Promised Land, then the “you” is Israel and the Promised Land is Jesus. Either works.
“In truth I tell you, of all the children born to women, there has never been anyone greater than John the Baptist.” Jesus has just given the reason. It is because no one else has had this privileged relationship to Him. Jesus is without a doubt affirming John’s message, that the Coming One was coming and was near at hand. And from what Matthew has shown us, there is no doubt that Jesus sees Himself as the fulfillment of John’s message.
The Least in the Kingdom of Heaven (11:11b)
“Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he,” that is, greater than “all the children born to women,” including John. My goodness! Who is the least in the kingdom of heaven? The least of His disciples. Whoever comes to Jesus enters into the beatitude of His Person of which He spoke in 5:2-12. Does this not include John the Baptist? No, for this does not come upon His disciples until after His death. It comes upon them in His resurrection. And John will have died before that takes place. Is this really what Jesus means? I’m not sure. For Matthew I think the Day of Judgment comes when Jesus goes to the cross. I do not mean that is the only Day of Judgment. There is an eschatological Day (days, really). But for the disciples, the Judgment takes place then, on the cross: the judgment of the world, of Israel, and even of them. Jesus’ love for them gets them through it, and God vindicates that love by raising Jesus from the dead.
The least in the kingdom of heaven are all those who discover the love of God for them in the face of Jesus. They hear His call, they feel the attraction of Him, and come to Him.
In the resurrection, John the Baptist will be in the kingdom of heaven, a man even greater than who he was.
Are We Disappointed in Jesus?
Jesus comes in this path of lowliness, of weakness, and is among the poor as a common Person. And He is crucified in weakness, as helpless. Was He possessed of the almighty power of God? The miracles suggest that He was at least a channel of them. But could He not use the power of God to fix the world? To subdue rulers? To cast down the rich? To stop oppression? Instead, there is nothing of this. He becomes a victim of military might and the politics of church and state. In our own day He seems to be just One of many alternatives. Those who believe in Him do not live remarkably different lives. And if their lives are better than others, is it because of Him? Why are we to accept His outrageous claims?
He claimed to be the One. Was He? Is this the form that the “One” comes in?
We are all disappointed in Him. Yet we continue to believe. We are divided. One part of us knows the truth and we love Him. Yet the part of us that is a construct of this world rebels against His simplicity; we demand a “messiah” that is more like ourselves, more like what the world has taught us to value.
The truth is that the truth of Jesus may be far more different than we realize. It may be something utterly new, that fits in none of our categories, that is incomprehensible on the basis of what we already know. It may be something completely strange that we cannot even recognize, except for a quiet intuition within that tells us to wait a second. Can we forget everything we have ever learned? Can we find a way to be new enough to receive the new? If not, we may not recognize Jesus at all.
At the end of the day, do we stay with Jesus, or do we move on? That is the question.