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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Identifying Jesus and John the Baptist—Matthew 11:2-11 (Richard Davis)

The interconnected identities of Jesus and John the Baptist are a matter of speculation in the Gospel of Matthew. The truth is revealed through the fulfilment Old Testament prophecy and against the foil of the brutal rule of Herod.

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense 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? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Truly 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.

Not included in the Revised Common Lectionary, but an important continuation of our reading are the verses that immediately follow. Matthew 11:12-15 read:

12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15Let anyone with ears listen!

In general, our reading from Matthew is about the identity of Jesus and John the Baptist. What or who are these men, and what or who are they not? These are important questions for Advent, the time when we expectedly await the arrival of the Messiah, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Just who are these men? How do we know who they are? The identities of John and Jesus are intertwined through the narrative, and we know each of them partially through the other.

Our narrative begins with John’s messengers bringing his question about Jesus’s identity from prison. We will come to that question below, along with the questions of why John is in prison and whose prison it is.

In our age of mass incarceration, we are constantly told that people in prison deserve to be there and that we need more prisons for all the criminals who threaten us. However, Christians know that John and Jesus, and many other Christian leaders have been jailed for reasons of faith.

We can also recall that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Jr., and countless Quakers and Plowshares activists were jailed for witnessing to the political aspects of the gospel. In our passage, Jesus reassures us that the John is a good man. And if a good man is in prison, then we might ask whether the prison is bad.

Whether we are in prison, or free, when we read Matthew’s gospel, John’s question might be our question too: “Who is Jesus?” In John’s way of asking this question, he asks whether Jesus is the one who was prophesied to come.

John asks directly: Are you the one? Perhaps he was expecting a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Jesus answers in a way based on prophecy, claiming his identity by his deeds. In his actions, he fulfills the expectation of the Jubilee and other prophecies. By focusing on his deeds, Jesus says, if you can understand my deeds you will know the answer to who I am.

Jesus also treats John’s question gracefully. It is the wrong question, but the right answer is given. The question is mistaken, because John is expecting the Kingdom to come, yet Jesus answers that the Kingdom is already here.

Even if we accept Jesus’s answer, we might have further questions about the poor in verse 5. All others mentioned there are healed or restored—the blind are no longer blind, the lame are no longer lame, the lepers are no longer lepers, the deaf are no longer deaf, and dead are no longer dead.

In this list being poor is the only non-physical affliction. All the others, such as being deaf or lame are physical. Being poor is not. What happens to them? They remain poor, but have the good news preached to them. Why aren’t they made wealthy or at least middle class? If the blind can now see, why aren’t the poor lifted out of poverty?

Firstly, we can note that Jesus’ healing ministry tells us that he is very concerned with our physical well-being. Secondly, consistent with our theme of identity, it is Jesus’ preaching to the poor, along with his healing ministry, that identifies him as the Messiah. When Jesus preaches the good news to the poor, he fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 61:1 (NRSV):

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;

Some people in poverty might think this is a poor bargain—it would be better to be a dead rich person who is brought back to life, than a living poor person who stays poor and merely has the word preached at them. Is this bad news for the poor? Is Marx right, that Christianity serves to make the poor happy with their exploitation?

This question opens up an important point about the identity of the poor in relation to Jesus. We may recall Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Furthermore, both Jesus and John became poor, showing that God reaches down to the poor and identifies with the poor.

When Jesus preached to the poor, he did so face-to-face. There was an intimacy of connection and identification. Jesus’s preaching was not from a distance like a televangelist. He knew them and was with them.

This is perhaps how we should interpret Matthew 26:11: “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” So those in poverty knew that Jesus was with them and for them—not to make them rich, but because they were poor.

Once John’s messengers depart, Jesus tells his audience about John’s identity, the subject of verses 7 to 19. Perhaps Jesus felt a need to explain who John was, given his question and band of messengers.

In verse 7, we see Jesus asking his audience whether they thought John was a “reed shaken by the wind.” He might be making the point that they would not have travelled so far to see an ordinary man.

Jesus might also be making a political point. John was not capricious, fickle, or a politician, blown around like a reed in the winds of public opinion. He was a prophet concerned only with God’s will. Jesus may have intended a specific contrast with Herod Antipas here, as Herod used an image of a reed on his coins. If so, this links verse 7 more closely with verse 8.

If John’s followers did not go out to see this “reed”, then did they go out to see John in fine clothes? To Jesus’s hearers this may have sounded like a joke—of course they did not expect to find John wearing royal cloth. John was poor and famously “wore clothing of camel’s hair” (Matthew 3:4).

He was not a court prophet, but lived a hard and simple life in the wilderness. Again, this might be a reference to Herod, who would have worn fine cloth in his sumptuous palace. The palace may have been that at Machaerus, where John was imprisoned and ultimately beheaded by Herod. Perhaps John asked his original question of Jesus, because if Jesus were the Messiah, who liberates captives, then why was he still in jail.

Jesus’s joke was not merely to make people laugh at themselves; it includes a comparison between John in the wilderness and the King in his palace. In this comparison, Jesus highlights the great distance between John and royalty.

Some commentators have read this as Jesus praising John’s simple lifestyle and separation from earthly politics. Not only did they have radically opposed wardrobes, John was currently in Herod’s jail.

Why was John in prison? Matthew 14 supplies the answer. John had criticised Herod Antipas for his unlawful marriage. Like many rulers, Herod clearly thought that the law did not apply to him, and wanted to kill John from that point on. Setting such an example could serve as a warning about, or even condemnation of, speaking truth to power.

Next Jesus calls John a prophet. But John is no ordinary prophet; he came from the wilderness in order to prepare the way for Christ (Malachi 3:1; cf. Isaiah 40:3). In this way, Jesus also links the prophecies concerning himself with that concerning John. John was a poor prophet whose food “was locusts and wild honey” (Matthew 3:4). Jesus then praises John as being a supremely great man in verse 11.

This is where our lectionary reading ends, but it is worth reading on.

Verse 12 is notoriously baffling to interpreters. Of interest to the theme of identity is whether it helps us to know John better. From a political viewpoint, the interest lies in whether this verse in any way justifies violence, including violence for advancing the Kingdom of God. There have been two broad ways of interpreting this verse.

The first has been to interpret this violence as spiritual violence or struggle. Some interpreters, such as Saint Ambrose and Symeon the New Theologian, thought this verse demonstrates praiseworthy vigour and strength in pursuing the Kingdom. Violence represents the struggles of life that one must go through in order to posses the Kingdom of God. Violence represents one’s struggle for the Kingdom in the spiritual realm against principalities and powers (Ephesians 6:12). Perhaps John represents the embodiment of this struggle for the Kingdom.

The second way to interpret this verse is that it talks about physical violence. On the one hand, this violence could be positive, with Jesus being a Zealot advocating for violently seizing the Kingdom.

On the other hand, Jesus may be rejecting violence. First of all, Jesus might be talking about the violence suffered by the imprisoned John. Moreover, Jesus’s Kingdom is not of this world and cannot be won through human means such as violence or the state. In this case, Jesus would not be a Zealot and would reject their way of violent revolution. In any case, the Kingdom has already come in Jesus’s service, in healing the sick and preaching to the poor.

Whichever way we read verse 12, verses 12-14 make the point that things changed with John. He was the fulfilment of prophecy and first one to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom. Verses 13 to 14 summarise Jesus’s point. Just as Jesus is the fulfilment of prophecy, so is John. Perhaps John could not see either of these things, hence his question.

So who are Jesus and John the Baptist? They are the expected ones announcing the Kingdom and showing us what it looks like. “Let anyone with ears listen!”

Dr. Richard A. Davis is Lecturer in Theology and Ethics at the Pacific Theological College in Suva, Fiji Islands. He tweets on @rad_1968.

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