The Politics of the Forerunner

The Politics of Scripture

The prophets serve as God’s messengers, both as conduit of information between people, as well as serving as forerunners, preparing the way for God’s will to occur in the world.

1See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
(Malachi 3:1-4, NRSV)

Our Malachi text for today appears twice in the lectionary. It first appears in Advent (Advent 2, Year C) when Christians anticipate the arrival of Jesus Christ and seek and find in the Hebrew Scriptures prophecies of the arrival of the Christ. Second, we read this text today for the Feast of Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ. The basis of this feast is Luke 2:22-40, another lectionary reading for today. The Feast occurs forty days after the nativity of Jesus. In both cases the text bears Christological importance in the Christian tradition.

Focussing on the Advent usage, we easily see some of the political importance of this text in how the passage is enveloped. To see this, we follow the lead of commentators who link back to Malachi 2:17 (which asks: “Where is the God of justice?”),  as well as forward to Malachi 3:5 (which shows what justice/judgement looks like: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts”). These verses raise and answer important political questions: where is justice in an unjust world? (Malachi 2:17); what is the nature of this justice? (Malachi 3:5); and who will bring us justice? (Malachi 3:1-4).

This is not a simple passage to interpret, with a major difficulty being to determine how many characters appear in these four verses. Scholars are split on this; however, a common and useful solution is that we have the messenger as the forerunner and the second person as the Lord. The identity of the messenger of verse 1 is also a subject of scholarly debate. The lack of consensus over who the messenger is permits much speculation about the political nature of the messenger who heralds the coming (or the return) of the Lord. Some critics link 3:1 back to Malachi 1:1, making the messenger the prophet Malachi himself. Christian commentary tends to read the passage through the Gospels’ use of the passage (see Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 1:76; 7:27).

The messenger’s role is to prepare the way for the Lord. Similar words are used in the Exodus narrative (Exodus 23:20; 33:2). Exodus 33:2 has obvious political and imperial meanings, for it describes the removal of the Canaanites and other nations to make way for the Israelites to enter the promised land (see also Deuteronomy 7:1-2). In the prophetic literature we also find similar language. Isaiah 40:3: “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” The action to prepare the way is also used in Isaiah 57:14 (“Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way”) and in Isaiah 62:10 (“Go through, go through the gates, prepare the way for the people”).

These passages may all sound similar (a position made tangible in the paring of the Malachi text at Advent with Luke 3:1-6, which quotes Isaiah 40:3-5), but there are political differences here, which are amplified in the Christian interpretation. The differences here are that in both Exodus and Isaiah the way is being cleared for the benefit of the people whose fortunes are being restored or increased. In Malachi, the focus is different; it is on the arrival of the “great King” (Malachi 1:14). In the context of the ancient world the language of 3:1 (“prepare the way”) evokes the royal procession of the king, who is preceded by someone who is most likely part of the king’s inner court and who clears the way and makes the arrival smooth. In today’s world this is comparable to the smooth ride heads of state have through sanitised and secure streets from the airport to their summit hotel. In both political and theological movements, we see how the forerunner or prophet prepares the way for the more important revolutionaries. Peter Tkachev was a forerunner of Lenin. Dr. Robert Love was forerunner of Marcus Garvey, who in turn was a forerunner for Malcolm X. In the Protestant Reformation John Wyclif and Jan Hus may be considered forerunners of Luther and Calvin.

In the Christian interpretation of our passage John the Baptist (the new Elijah) is typically seen as the forerunner of Christ, both in his prophetic message and in his death at the hands of political authorities. Making John the Baptist the messenger who fulfils Malachi’s prophecy implies making Christ the political messiah Israel has been waiting for. The idea that the Lord of verse 3:1 is Christ presupposes a political theology. It makes Jesus and John the Baptist fit into a particular model.

First, consider John the Baptist. Was he a messenger of the kind found in 3:1a? It may appear that he was. In the gospel of John chapter 1, John the Baptist is identified as the one who precedes the arrival of the Christ (John 1:15). He also identified as the one who prepares the way, saying: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (referencing Isaiah 40:3; 57:14, 62:10). On the other hand, John the Baptist himself denies that he is Elijah (John 1:21). While there are similarities, there are also important differences. Elijah anointed earthly kings (1 Kings 19:15-16), while John criticised them, staying well clear of political power. John was killed by Herod for criticising his adultery (Matthew 14:1-12). John also proclaimed the Kingdom of God (Matthew 3:2), not the kingship of men.

What about Jesus? Was he the kind of king who sweeps into the land in a royal procession? Did he choose this kingly option? Are we, in linking this passage to Advent, making Christ fulfil the expectation of a political messiah who will arrive suddenly and restore the religio-political fortunes of Israel? The irony of reading this during Advent is that Christ did not come suddenly. He was, like other humans, in his mother’s womb for nine months, was raised like other children, and only began his ministry some thirty years into his life. This is hardly a sudden coming. And his arrival into Jerusalem on a donkey was hardly a royal gesture (Mathew 21:1-11).

In his book, Revolutionary Christianity, John Howard Yoder points out one option for Jesus arriving suddenly into the temple (Yoder 2011, 61, 63). This was in the third temptation of Jesus, where Satan tempts Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple and land in the temple courtyard (Luke 4:9-12). Not often given political importance, this temptation, if taken by Jesus, would have more than fulfilled the prophecy of Malachi 3:1b to be a political messiah.

The political interpretation of this passage hinges, therefore, on whether Malachi’s language of a royal procession can be adequately applied to John the Baptist as the messenger and Christ as Lord. While it may be true that the Baptist was the forerunner of Christ, that does mean that all scriptural accounts of forerunners and their successors can be suitably applied to John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. Interpreters, in applying these scriptures to John and Jesus, often give them more of an ethical or spiritual importance, not a political one. This is done by interpreting the preparation of the way of the Lord, and the refining and cleansing that follows his arrival as work to be done in the human heart, and in preparation for true worship, stripped of any social or political importance.

The eschatological nature of the passage, however, preserves its political importance. With the arrival of the messenger, history is moving toward a more just and faithful future, marked by the arrival of the Lord who purifies and restores. Is Christ the restorer of Israel to its glory “as in the days of old and as in former years” (3:4)? He is much more than that; Christ redeems the whole world. This Christian claim is in stark contrast to parochial speculation over modern political figures who are claimed to be leading us to the promised land. Some American Evangelicals sound as though Donald Trump is a forerunner of Jesus, or even a Lord himself who wishes to Make America Great Again, “as in the days of old and as in former years”.

Finally, we consider the Candlemas reading, where Jesus appears in the temple with Joseph and Mary in fulfilment of the Jewish post-natal purification ritual (Leviticus 12:1-4). Bringing the infant Jesus, as newborn Jew, to the temple in Jerusalem is not in itself of any apparent political importance. It hardly fulfils Malachi’s prophecy of the great king who arrives and immediately sets about purifying the “descendants of Levi”. It does however show the King of the Jews taking his rightful place in his temple. In terms of the politics of the Christmas narrative, the story itself could be in temporal conflict with the story of the massacre of the infants by Herod and the holy family’s escape to safety in Egypt (Matthew 2). This potential inconsistency depends on the timing of Herod’s death. If Herod died within forty days of Jesus birth (perhaps killed by God as a punishment for the slaughter of the innocents, Matthew 2:16-18), then it would have been safe to return and perform the ritual. If not, did they make a clandestine and dangerous journey back to Jerusalem for this purpose? If so, this would have had the significance of risking death against at the hands of Herod who wanted Jesus dead.

Both the Advent and Candlemas readings can make it appear that Christ conforms to the prophecy of Malachi. But this is not necessarily the true politics of Jesus, who rejected the way of the messianic knigly politics of Malachi.

References:

Yoder, John Howard. 2011. Revolutionary Christianity: The 1966 South American Lectures, edited by Paul Martens et al. Eugene, Or: Cascade Books. 

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