First Thoughts on Year A Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Advent 3

William Loader

Advent 3: 15 December Matthew 11:2-11

John had announced that someone was coming who would bring fiery judgement, pitchfork in hand and axe for the trees. The way Matthew tells the story there is no mistake: Jesus is that coming one. The baptism makes that unambiguous. But this creates a problem in the story. We have heard much between Matthew 3 and Matthew 11, but where is the pitchfork? Where is the fire? So it makes good sense that John sends his disciples with a ‘Please explain!’

Matthew has no doubt about it. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. He reminds us of that in the opening verse of our passage: John heard about ‘the deeds of the Christ’. If we had been sitting listening to Matthew’s account, we would know exactly what he meant. Matthew has given us an account of Jesus’ words in 5-7, the sermon on the mount, and constructed a summary of Jesus’ deeds in 8-9, surrounding them neatly by the same summary statement in 4:23 and 9:35. When, in the story, Jesus tells John’s disciples to go and tell what they have heard and seen (11:4), the list summarises these deeds (11:5). So there is John’s answer. He should be happy about that (11:6).

In fact 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.

It connects us to the wider prophetic vision, especially as it is expressed in Isaiah. The good news which the prophet and the prophet to come is to announce is good news for the poor and destitute, the broken hearted and downtrodden, the captives and oppressed. Its vista includes scenes of feasting on Mt Zion, of peace-making among the nations, of gathering of peoples from east and west, of fellowship in hearing and obeying God’s Law, of healing and restoration. Jesus not only upheld this vision as the hope of the kingdom, of what will happen when God reigns, but also took it as an agenda for the here and now and declared that it was indeed beginning to operate in his ministry through the Spirit. Its most enduring element, the meal, became a central symbol and point of realisation, as people found there the controversial inclusiveness of Jesus’ ministry. It lives on in the eucharist.

But what about John’s worries? We might create a John in our imagination upset that things had not really turned out the way he had expected. We would be going far beyond the text to find in this the petty obsession with embarrassment which might plague some: how embarrassing to get it wrong! What will people think?! But was there anything potentially offensive in Jesus’ reply as 11:6 suggests? Are we still glimpsing evidence of an otherwise hidden split? Did Jesus break from John’s focus on judgement and choose instead the vision of hope? Did they split over divine vengeance? Was it more than that, as some have suggested? Did Jesus give up future eschatology altogether because of its implied violence?

One might find signs of surface crumpling also in the verses which follow: John is affirmed yet put in his place. Was it just that people needed reminding that John announced Jesus, was his forerunner? Or was John also in some sense wrong? Matthew certainly would not have said so. He even takes the summary of Jesus’ message, which he found in Mark 1:15 and uses it as a summary of John’s message (3:2; 4:17). In fact Jesus is also a lot more like John in Matthew than in any other gospel. Judgement is where all of Jesus’ speeches end up. The only clarification which appears to be required for John is that Jesus is not bringing the pitchfork and the fire yet. He will - later. In the interim he has come to expound the Law and to demonstrate its heart - in compassion.

The idea of a major split with John or that Jesus originally had nothing to do with John is scarcely credible. Nor is the notion that John had a future focused vision and Jesus the opposite and that earliest Christianity went different ways, one group via a strand of Q to Thomas’s Christianity, the other to Paul and the gospels. We have too little material about John to make a sound historical judgement.

Nevertheless there is a difference in focus (as well as an obvious difference in location). The relationship between the two had to be explained. They were not to be seen as rivals, nor as opponents, even though it is likely that they later had competing followers. It was in Christianity’s interests to make John subordinate. 11:11b is perhaps a harsh expression of this. It is likely however that they were closely linked in reality and that Jesus emerged from John’s shadow (and discipleship) to greater prominence.

There does also seem to be a different emphasis, with far less focus on judgement in the message of Jesus in the earliest material and instead on renewal in the here and now as a breaking into the present of the future vision. Perhaps unfairly, given the sparseness of the material, John is portrayed primarily as warning of judgement, whereas Jesus embodies a new emphasis of change now which shows its face as compassion. John’s place is the place of preparation. He can be compared to the Elijah figure expected to prepare for the climax, using Malachi 3:1. Jesus crosses over into the settled land and begins to live out the prophetic vision in the present. Both are on the same side as we see from Jesus’ none too subtle allusion to the local royalty (perhaps also in the image of the reed which Herod Antipas used on his coins).

Fairly or unfairly, John and Jesus become paradigms of spirituality or theology, the one, with its focus on threat and warning, concerned that what is right is done; the other, with its focus on people, concerned to bring wholeness and healing. Historically such a contrast is scarcely justified. But within the narratives such tendencies are evident, even though this is least recognisable in Matthew. Still, the answer of Jesus is powerful. It could, of course, mean little more than: tell John about the fantastic miracles; stun him with that! More likely it reflects the prophetic visions which remain the inspiration for the tradition today: tell John about change and transformation in people’s lives. That is what we are here for and that is what excites us. Spiritualities excited by anything else (like the magic of miracles, like overcoming the enemies of God by judgement, like getting all the rules right) miss the point.

Epistle: Advent 3: 15 December  James 5:7-10