Suffering the Extremes of Kingdom
When John heard in prison what the Messiah [or: Christ] 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.” [Malachi 3:1]
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. 12From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, [or: has been coming violently] and the violent take it by force. 13For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15Let anyone with ears listen!
John knows who Jesus is. (Matthew 3:14) He has entrusted his life to proclaiming the kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 3:2) And paid the cost. In Herod's prison, his only hope is that Jesus will bring the kingdom soon, so that he— John— might be released. But Jesus seems to be heading in another direction altogether. The axe lies, not at the root of the trees, but poised only over John's neck. "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?"
… 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.
No axe. No armies. Not even fire. Kingdom is something quite different from what you imagine. John is put in his place.1
On my first reading, it seemed to me that the lectionary is quite arbitrary in excluding the following verses:
12From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, [or: has been coming violently] and the violent take it by force. 13For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15Let anyone with ears listen!
Why are they excluded? They are the natural end to the story about John which begins at 11:2.
Why does the lectionary stop short of this verse?  It could be because the key word biazetai, “suffer violence,” has caused a history of translation problems. In Greek the middle and passive voice are declined the same in the indicative. Biazetai is one of those instances of the middle/passive, such that it has been translated both in the middle as “forcefully advancing,” NIV, as well as the more common passive rendering, “suffering violence” — basically the opposite! Major theologians have lined up on both sides of this translation issue.
I have added the bold format in that quotation. He is saying we can read this text in two opposite ways, and the way in which we read makes all the difference to the meaning of the text.
What's happening in all these complexities of grammar? For a sense of how a word can mean its opposite, Nuechterlein presents an English example:
Here’s an illustration in English of the problem with biazetai. What word is this: resign? I heard sports announcers the other day read a story about a player resigning (pronounced resine) for another year with his team, and the next story was about a coach pressured to resign (pronounced rezine), basically fired. Then they noticed out loud that it’s the same word — spelled the same, anyway — with essentially opposite meanings. In the case of biazetai, I’m not sure the two uses are even pronounced differently.
And the voices? Active voice is just what it says; it's where we do something, or act. Passive voice is where something is done to us. Middle is just that: in the middle. Middle voice is where we act upon ourselves in some way.
Here is Nuechterlein's interpretation of verse 12.
Gottlob Schrenk, [excerpt here] … weighs the various interpretations [of biazetai] … and concludes, “All that we read elsewhere in Mt. shows that Jesus has in view the forces which were opposed to Him in the Judaism of His day.”
The violence Jesus is talking about is coming from his own people, but the implications are wider.
I propose that mimetic theory helps us to take Schrenk’s conclusion and generalize it as a problem of all human cultures, with the Jewish culture of Jesus’ day being a specific instance. What we might see is that all cultures are binding, forcefully imposing their myriad of conventions, standards, and morals. The “kingdom of heaven,” God’s Culture, on the other hand, intentionally suffers the violence of human cultures in order to expose it as violence. (I have added the emphasis)
Hence, the middle voice. Jesus, as representing God’s Culture, neither actively forces [himself] on others, in the vein of all other human cultures, nor does he passively suffer the violence. Jesus represents God’s culture by knowingly submitting to the violence of human cultures….
We could restate that: Jesus re-presents God's Culture so it may be seen with new eyes.
Now it is clear: the significance of the word biazetai is that John expected a violent cleansing and coming of Kingdom; axe, burning, and judgement. But Jesus has been expressing a coming of Kingdom where violence is suffered, not done to people. John's complaint is that Jesus' kingdom will not save John. Jesus' reply is that John is suffering kingdom! In this is his salvation. Therefore, "blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me." Does this mean that if we will not suffer with the kingdom, we may not see the blessings which are already at hand?
The suffering of the Kingdom is "from the days of John the Baptist until now." In the time of Matthew's community, and now, kingdom suffers violence. We are meant to be folk who live like John and Jesus; not violent bringers of judgment, but people who in suffering violence show the lies of violence, and show that it has nothing to do with the Kingdom of Heaven.
Would we rather wear "soft robes?" From the point of view of any of Jesus' listeners, the majority of westerners live in palaces. And I find much in my own church that wants not to be extreme, not to be outrageous, but which wants kingdom along with all the accoutrements and privileges of modern western affluence.
But John and Jesus were extremists. If we cannot see this, then Advent has 'gone over our heads' and we may celebrate Christmas as disciples of violence rather than disciples of Jesus.
I will not condemn extremists.
I condemn violence. And these two get conflated so often it is worth asking ourselves why, whose interests are served by this blurring.
Those who use violence in pursuit of their political agenda are regularly labelled extreme. If only they had pursued their goals through peaceful means, we say. Yet this obscures the everyday violence of a system so “normal” that it will never be called extreme.
When multinational banks, fossil energy companies and weapons manufacturers get subsidies, tax cuts, loopholes, political access and nothing more than slaps on the wrist, while indigenous people, single parents, the disabled, elderly, unemployed get austerity, services cut, grievances ignored, working conditions eroded, civil liberties constricted, living spaces polluted, their struggles and small escapes harshly criminalised – that is violence. Holding desperate people in abysmal conditions to stoke and pander to xenophobia for political gain is violence. Suppressing the memory and ongoing legacies of colonial genocide and dispossession is violence. Foreign policy that puts the interests of elites over the upholding of international law, that mutes criticism of useful authoritarian regimes while unflinchingly supporting allied imperialism is violence. Sacrificing a stable climate for the short term profits of a small number of major shareholders is one of the most violent ideas ever conceived. It may not look like a bomb in a market, or a truck ploughing through a crowd of people, but its victims end up just as dead or wounded. The values, assumptions, institutions and practices that sustain it are violent and unjust.
But they are not considered extreme, because they are the status quo. It suits those who benefit from the ways things are to focus our condemnation elsewhere, to channel our outrage into xenophobia, victim-blaming and the relative trivialities of the latest celebrity scandal or sporting upset.
To be extremist is to stand opposed to the status quo. This can be done violently and for unjust goals, but it needn’t be. And when the status quo is itself violent and unjust, then opposing it is the only defensible option. Byron Smith
In Matthew 11, Jesus asks John, and us, if we are extremists, or if we stand as beneficiaries of the violence which is our neo-liberal society. (Except that we never stand as mere beneficiaries; we become complicit by our acceptance.)
Our best hearts know the prophetic critique of society is true. Jesus says to the people who heard his reply to John, "What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed2 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"… the palaces of the status quo. You know you want the different world John heralds, he says. It calls to your heart.
Jesus' listeners knew John was absolutely opposed to those in power, that he was an extremist. And so do we. His stance meant that "among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist." Yet, says Jesus, "the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he!" Why?
John still conceived of the kingdom of heaven in terms of violence. He saw violence as an answer to the world's problems, rather than violence as a consequence of its problems. In his cell, perhaps dumbfounded by Jesus' answer, he was called to decide whether to be a violent extremist, or an "extremist for love." (Martin Luther King, quoted by Smith, original context here.)
I quote the following words with reluctance, for in many ways, I am scarcely a victim. But I have at least found myself opposed to the status quo, and vulnerable, and have experienced the change in perspective that this brings.
After Easter, the existence of what James Alison3 calls the “intelligence of the victim” will mean that even the least in the kingdom will be greater than John in the opportunity to understand. The post-Easter community will have access to an “intelligence” regarding things like judgment to which John never had access. (Nuechterlein)
Choosing to be in the place of the victim4, choosing to suffer for the kingdom of heaven, and adopting the extremism of Jesus, opens our eyes to the nature of the world. It shows us the extreme differences between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of palaces. It will allow us to see if our Christmas celebrations and our readings of the Nativity are rapt with the tinsel trinkets of tyranny, or wrapped in the blessings of Christ.
And if John's prison becomes literal reality for us? It is the cost of being a disciple.
Advent is a time when we ought to be shaken and brought to a realization of ourselves. The necessary condition for the fulfillment of Advent is the renunciation of the presumptuous attitudes and alluring dreams in which and by means of which we always build ourselves imaginary worlds. In this way, we force reality to take us to itself by force — by force, in much pain and suffering. (Alfred Delp, “The Shaking of Reality,” in When the Time Was Fulfilled, Plough, 1965, p. 16 My thanks to my colleague Kathy Donley for this reference)
May it never be! I can only hope I would be as brave. But in his cell, the soon to be martyred Delp had seen through the 'imaginary worlds' and their violence. He had made the choice Jesus offers John. He had not stumbled (ie; taken offence) Rather reality, than soft robes and an anaesthetised conscience.
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. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
- John Petty: The very early church was careful to make clear that John was subordinate to Jesus. John appears to have been well-known throughout the region. Herod Antipas knew of him. The crowds, and Herod, even confused Jesus with John the Baptist come back from the dead.
This may have been a sensitive point in the early church. That Jesus was baptized by John is attested by all four gospel writers, though John can't quite bring himself to mention the actual baptism. The early church, therefore, had to deal with the fact that Jesus entered into public ministry as something of a follower of the Baptist. The gospel writers always affirm a connection between John and Jesus, provided it is understood that John is the lesser figure.
John (Petty) is also insightful with the following:
For Matthew, Jesus is the "new Moses." Reflecting 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). .... Matthew introduces this new section by mentioning to his readers that John is now in prison. The free-wheeling Baptist, once in the wilderness, is now bound up, most likely in an underground prison, and now lives in the darkness.
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.
- A reed shaken by the wind implies someone vacillating, blown around, captive to popular opinion. It's a cutting remark about the lack of wisdom and the unanchored life of those in royal palaces. In its context, it was even sharper than we realise. When Ptolemy tried to enter the Holy of Holies, God "shook him on this side and that as a reed is shaken by the wind, so that he lay helpless on the ground and, besides being paralysed in his limbs, was unable even to speak, since he was smitten by a righteous judgement." (3 Maccabees 22) The Herod of Jesus' day had the image of reeds on his coins. (see, for example, Matthew Craig Evans pp237)
- The only way I think I can explain this is with reference to personal experience. I hope that we have all had the experience of gradually coming to perceive exactly the same things in a different way. We look out at a certain reality, at home, at work, in a relationship, and realize that, without our having understood a particular fact, or circumstance that we didn’t before, nevertheless, we are aware that our whole way of looking has changed profoundly and subtly. This might be for any number of reasons, like a new friendship, or the end of a period of anxiety where we hadn’t realized how much we’d allowed it to color our vision. The point is that the change is not in our conscious awareness, but in the background to that, in what makes us have a conscious awareness at all. It is as though we are watching a film; the film doesn’t change, but the projectionist subtly puts a filter into the projector, so that exactly the same film comes out, but is changed into sepia, or pink, or whatever.
The point of my bringing this out is that the disciples’ block to understanding the intelligence of the victim was at this level. It was not a question of stupidity, of not grasping certain basic teachings. The problem was for them, and is for us, that the intelligence that was in Jesus was an intelligence at the level of what makes us conscious, what makes us aware. The disciples had, as we have, a background to understanding, which is actually formed by what Jesus was trying to change. The filter, if you like, which colors our perception without our being aware of it, not only is not the same as Jesus’ intelligence of the victim, but is in fact its reverse: our programming, if you like, forms us in rivalry, and the techniques of survival by exclusion.
None of this, it must be said, could have been known until after the resurrection, when the new intelligence was able to irrupt into the lives of the disciples. However, they did then understand that Jesus had been trying to make this available to them not only in the way he went to his death, but in all the things he had taught them. (James Alison Knowing Jesus, pp. 40-41 Quoted here.)
- We sometimes hear of people who play the victim; the self pitying freeloader. This is the slur of the tabloid press, and Alison speaks of the exact opposite. One who has been a victim of society can see the reality of the situation in which we live with frightening clarity. The tabloid's masters must silence them.
The apparent need for some folk to claim victim status, is itself a cry for help in a society which has devalued them: they recognise that insightful victims have found something significant in their experience, perhaps identifying this empowering discovery as being the centre of attention. But the victim Alison speaks of is not so much one seen, as a seer who we do not want to see.