Lake Hart, SA, 2016

Jesus draws a line in the sand

Week of Sunday December 15 - Advent 3
Gospel: Matthew 11:1-18, 28:30

Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah 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.” 
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 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!

16 ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, 
17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
   we wailed, and you did not mourn.” 
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’....

28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

My Friend D:

Do you remember those times in Youth Group, Andrew? How committed we all were? And have you noticed we have no beach house, no boat, no investment accounts, you and I? And how all those Youth Group friends seem to have them?

John is definitively put in his place by this reading. 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." All of the Gospels take such care to emphasis John's subordination to Jesus that it is clear there were folk who thought John was The One. The Mandaic Book of John, for example, is very clear about this! Jesus is called the deceiver; John is the one to listen to.

Matthew is clear. John is the Elijah who was expected to return before the Messiah, but he is not the Messiah. (11:14 cf Malachi 4:5-6: "Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse".)

John is to be revered by the church— there is none greater of woman born— but is only the messenger who prepares the way. Yet placing himin the company of the Emperor  Cyrus in Isaiah (40:3, 41:2, 45:1-7) means this is not a dismissal; instead, we should pay attention to him. Preparing the way includes repentance. If we do not turn to God's ways then no path for the Christ is prepared in our lives. (Matt 11:10)

We imagine in the story that John is perplexed. There has been no pitchfork, no fire— Are you really the one who is to come?     

‘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.’

The answer is exquisite. It is neither Yes nor No. We must draw our own conclusion; the decision for the Kingdom is ours alone.

....[this] 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. (Bill Loader, my emphasis)

This enunciation of the Messiah's nature is preparing us for the final judgement of the Gospel about what really counts in life. Matthew 25:31-46, the last story before the Passion begins, asks us

 When you saw me hungry, did you give me food, and when I was thirsty did you give me something to drink? And when I was a stranger did you welcome you, and when I was naked did you give me clothing? When I was sick or in prison, did you visit me?   Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least, you did it to me. (alt)

John has to choose the vision he will follow, righteous fiery judgement, or healing love. The vision is always different from what we expected, even for him.

Is John in the kingdom of heaven?  The question remains unanswered.  ....  Unbelief is so serious that Matthew will not resolve it yet, even for the Baptist. (Brian Stoffregen)

This is the part of the reading which grabs my attention. His disciples go back to John with the words of Jesus and John must respond. At that moment, while they are still travelling, Jesus says 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."

There is no scuffing this line in the sand. It is absolute. Even John, none greater of woman born, is no member of the kingdom. There is something more required than the desire for justice. There is something more than the recognition that God is God; perhaps even more than the confession that Jesus is "Son of God," the One "who is more powerful... [who] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." (3:11) John knew who Jesus was:  I need to be baptized by you! (3:14) Recognition, agreement, assent, 'most favoured prophet status'... none of this is enough. Not even for John.

We have to cross the line:  ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,  17 "We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;  we wailed, and you did not mourn."'  We have to commit.

For those who will there is "rest."

28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’ (Matt 11:28-30)

The line is about being ready, (Matt 25:1-13) about being trustworthy, (Matt 25:14:30) and about bearing fruit that recognises the Christ among us (Matthew 25:31-46).... and being extreme about it.

We are an extremist faith: Matthew does not end at Chapter 25. There are two long chapters of betrayal, humiliation, torture and painful death.  Are we prepared for that? (Or just martyrdom over the war on Christmas?) Will we carry a cross over the line?

Fortunately most of us don't have to. Very fortunately, the great love of God means we are loved even if, and when, we fail.

But for Matthew's Jesus, even the most confronting preaching or faithful proclamation is not enough. Even imprisonment is not enough! Will you continue, John? You have heard what is happening. You are already paying the cost. But will you continue... even now?

It seems hardly a fair question. John had crossed a line; there was no going back for him.

I have no tidy way of saying this, but when I seek to balance the all encompassing love of God with the urgency of Matthew's Jesus I find no settled answer or understanding. The needle oscillates as if I were trembling on the scales, and that is good; this is no academic question, but life and death decision making.

The best I can conclude— for now— is that rest for my soul comes at those times when I give my all and abandon all hope of going back; when the prison door slams shut and the cost will be paid even if I change my mind; those moments when I have said, "Yes," and meant it and have accepted the consequence—  at those moments there is rest, and then, like John, I wonder. Was I right? Were you really the one who is to come?

Yet if I will not come to this uncomfortable doubting place (Matt 28:17) I find no rest at all.

Andrew Prior
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!

Online resources I found helpful for this study are:
Bill Loader First Thoughts on Year A Advent 3
Brian Stoffregen Third Sunday of Advent Year A

I have previously covered this text  in Matthew 11:2-11 Are you the One?  Since I begin fresh with each of these studies, I may even disagree with myself!


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Jeff's comments
Jeff Telfer 10-12-2013
Thank you Andrew for this highly timely reminder. You have expressed graphically the relationship between John and Jesus and brought out in a dramatic way the call as John heard it and the challenge it is to us.

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