Friday, March 15, 2013

What was up with John the Baptist?

Remember John the Baptist? He preached that Jesus would come, and was kind of obsessed with fire. And here in Matthew 11:1-19, we meet him again, and I ask the question: "What was up with John the Baptist?" (Also, we have a rage comic this week! Go check it out.)

I still think this picture is hilarious.

First we have verses 1-6, where John's messengers come to ask, on John's behalf, whether Jesus is or is not the Messiah.

That seems a bit strange. Wasn't that the very thing John had been preaching, before Jesus' ministry started? Wasn't John the one who saw a dove come down from heaven and a voice saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased"? What happened to that?

Right, so if someone strongly believes something at one point, they're not allowed to ever question it? Come on.

A long time before this, John definitely believed Jesus was the Messiah. But stuff happened since then. For one thing, John got put in jail (and we'll get to the details on that in chapter 14). Also, Jesus got going with his whole preaching-and-healing-and-calling-disciples operation, and maybe it wasn't what John expected the Messiah to do.

So here's John, questioning. For totally valid reasons, as far as I can tell.

And what's Jesus' answer? Is it "I can't believe you're doing this, how could you question, after all this time you've been a Christian"?

Umm, no. Jesus points to what he's been doing: "The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me." In other words, he asks John to consider the things Jesus is doing, and judge for himself.

And I think this passage says something about questioning and doubt. Far too often in the church, those with questions or doubts are silenced and shamed- how dare they even THINK such things! Especially if they've been Christians for a long time. (Because it's understandable for new Christians to have questions and doubts, but not those who have gone to church their entire lives...?) But Jesus doesn't react that way. He invites John to look and decide for himself. (Obviously Jesus lists those examples as an argument in favor of him being the Christ- but still, he gives reasons instead of just "I can't believe you're questioning this.")

And after John's minions leave, it's Jesus' turn to ask, "What was up with John the Baptist?"

He asks the crowd, "What did you go out into the wilderness to see?" and goes on to describe John as "a prophet... and more than a prophet", as the messenger who would prepare the way for Jesus, as "the Elijah who was to come."

Okay, some background for that "Elijah" bit: Hundreds of years before this, there was this prophet named Elijah, who did a lot of things and was generally cool. Later there was a prophecy that Elijah would come back before the Messiah showed up. So Jesus is saying that John the Baptist is, in some sense, Elijah.

And then Jesus makes this bizarre statement: "Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." Umm... so... the lowest member of the kingdom of heaven wasn't "born of women"?  And what do "greater" and "least" mean?

So, this is just a weird thing to say. Anyway, it seems to me like Jesus is making a division between an old and new system. The old one was based on nature ("born of women") and the law and prophets, and the new one is the kingdom of heaven, which I define as God's people and God's work both on earth and in heaven. John the Baptist was the last prophet, and Jesus is starting up a new kingdom that works differently.

But I have no idea what to make of verse 12: "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence [in some translations: the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing], and violent people have been raiding it." Ideas, anyone?

The last part of this passage (verses 16-19) is also a little weird:
"To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
"'We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.'
"For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' But wisdom is proved right by her deeds."
Jesus is saying that these people will never be pleased with anything. They don't want to believe, and they just complain no matter what. (At least, that's what I think he's saying, but the whole section is just weird.)

So... why is Jesus talking about that? Seems like he's being all negative and over-generalizing. But, as always, if I understood everything Jesus did and said, and it went right along with what I already believe, that would be a bit suspicious.

So, to recap: John the Baptist asked for some clarification on whether Jesus is the Christ, and IT WAS FINE, no one gave him a hard time about not automatically knowing what he's supposed to believe. Then Jesus gave a little talk on John's role and why it's so important- John came to prepare the way for Jesus, who starts up a new kingdom completely different from the old one.


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: Good News? (Matthew 11:1-6)

Next post: Woe. (Matthew 11:20-30)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

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