Mosaic image of angel representing St Matthew

Studying Matthew 11 7-19

We are studying Matthew 11:7-19 for Sunday, July 5. This is the first in a series of four lessons that look at the way the gospels present Jesus as a wisdom figure. This week, we’re looking at a short, cryptic discourse on John the Baptist and his role in the kingdom of the heavens that also points to Jesus’s role as divine wisdom. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are some notes on this text [which got really long, mainly because I have been so perplexed that I spent more time than usual in the concordance]:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is Matthew’s gospel again, so we can draw on the things we know about Matthew to help us: its context – we think – in the life of a community deeply informed by 1st century Judaism, its structure around major discourses punctuated by conflict narratives, its emphasis on prophecy and prophetic fulfillment [especially important here], and its recurrent incorporation of wisdom themes [something else of special interest to us this week].

The gospel of Matthew makes frequent (thirty-one) references to “the kingdom of heaven,” or particularly literally “the kingdom of the heavens.” Our text includes two of those. Matthew’s gospel also includes references (five) to “the kingdom of God,” which is the preferred language in the other gospels. This fact makes me doubt, slightly, the explanation that Matthew’s use of the “kingdom of the heavens” language is because Matthew’s Jewish Christian community would want to avoid using the name of God. Nevertheless, we normally think of “the kingdom of the heavens” as meaning the same thing as “the kingdom of God” – whatever that actually means, which is probably less clear to most of us than we sometimes think. Dallas Willard’s reading was that it refers to the realm that is under God’s direct control – which means that humans COULD be living there right this minute, though we mostly aren’t.

The references to the kingdom of heaven begin in Matthew 3:2, in the preaching of John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near!” Jesus takes up this identical refrain, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” in Matthew 4:17, after John is arrested, which follows Jesus’s own baptism and temptation in the wilderness, and which comes before calling up the disciples, and going around Galilee preaching and teaching and healing.

The Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7, starts with references to the kingdom of heaven, which belongs to the poor in spirit, and then also to those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, so forming the envelope around “the beatitudes.” Jesus proceeds to mention the kingdom of heaven again in connection with the law and prophets – “the least” in the kingdom will be anyone who breaks one of the commandments and teaches others to do that, and whoever does the commandments and teaches them will be great there, and to get in at all your righteousness has to exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:19-20). The rest of the sermon, arguably, is instruction about what precisely this means. Explicitly, it is not about calling Jesus “Lord, Lord” and doing deeds of power, but about doing the will of Jesus’s Father in heaven (Matthew 7:21-23) – this is almost the end of the sermon. In other words, the sermon begins and ends with references to the kingdom.

The next reference is an announcement that people from all over, including [implicitly] Gentiles like the centurion in chapter 8, will be eating with the patriarchs in the kingdom. Jesus then proceeds to do some more amazing things: heal Peter’s mother-in-law, tell the wind and waves to quiet down, cast out a legion of demons in Gentile land, heal a paralyzed man. Then he calls Matthew the tax collector, talks with some disciples of John the Baptist about fasting (Mt. 9:14-17), heals the woman with the discharge of blood on the way to raise a little girl from the dead, gives sight to the blind, casts out another demon, and then in chapter 10, after having realized that he needs help, trains some apprentices.

The “missionary discourse” contains another reference to the kingdom, which the twelve apostles are supposed to proclaim: “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He doesn’t mention the “repent” language John and he used in the earlier chapters. But they are supposed to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” and do all this free of charge, which would presumably be good news to the poor. The rest of the instructions include some daunting references to future corporal and capital punishments, Jesus’s investment in conflict (9:34-39), and how to tell what side people are on in this conflict.

I mention all this because it constitutes what we know about the kingdom of heaven, and John the Baptist and his disciples, by the time we get to chapter 11.

Following our text, there will be some conflict with Pharisees over plucking grain on the sabbath and healing on the sabbath and casting out demons, and then a whole discourse of parables devoted to elucidating (arguably) the kingdom of heaven. And then, still a lot more – Peter will be given the keys to the kingdom, Jesus will discuss who is greatest in the kingdom and compare that person to a child, and will stress forgiveness, and tell more parables (the laborers in the vineyard; the great banquet; the bridesmaids), and will rebuke the scribes and Pharisees for standing in the doorway and blocking up the hall [to quote Bob Dylan], and will spell out the criteria for sorting out those Gentiles.

Again, I say all this because Matthew’s presentation of the kingdom of heaven seems to govern the meaning of this passage, which talks specifically about the kingdom of heaven, and which is horribly difficult to understand. So let’s get to that …

CLOSER READING: Our focus is on the text that starts with verse 7, which points back to the exchange Jesus has just had with disciples of and messengers from John the Baptist. So let’s notice that in verse 2, Matthew tells us Jesus is the Messiah. That is, we readers already know the right answer to John’s question “are you the one who is to come?” [I confess, it has taken me a lifetime to see this.] But Jesus doesn’t give John the answer Matthew just gave us. He instead lists the concrete things that are being done – which, recall, Jesus also gave the 12 the mission to do (in Mt 10:7-8). So, the apostles’ activities are also signs that Jesus is the one who is to come. Jesus then adds “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” – who, literally, isn’t scandalized by Jesus. Maybe scandalized in the way John’s disciples were implicitly scandalized in 9:14-17, or in the way some Pharisees are about to be so implicitly scandalized that they want to destroy Jesus in chapter 12; or perhaps just literally scandalized, like the people in Nazareth at the end of chapter 13.

Not being able to discern if Jesus is “the one” seems to be a common problem for the people around Jesus, because some scribes and Pharisees will ask for “a sign” in 12:38-42, and Jesus will tell them, basically, they are not EVEN paying attention.

As the messengers from John the Baptist are leaving, Jesus starts to speak to “the crowds.” Now the difficulties begin.

Verses 7-14 focus on John the Baptist, and wind up with the announcement that John is “Elijah who is to come” (v14) – which is, in a way, a direct answer to John’s earlier question: “I’m not the coming Elijah, that was you; I’m the coming Messiah.”

The prediction about Elijah is from Malachi 4:5; in the process of leading up to this Jesus also quotes Malachi 3:1 (in v10) – but he switches up the pronouns, so that instead of God “sending my messenger ahead of me” God is now “sending my messenger ahead of you.” That shift in perspective may be telling.

But why does Jesus say what he says here? Why mention “a reed shaken by the wind” and why mention “soft robes”?

People have all kinds of comments about that reed. Reeds are blown to and fro by the wind, so they represent fickleness; people used to go out to picnic in the wilderness and watch the lovely reeds, so they represent entertainment; etc. Some of these comments sound more made up than others to me, but none of them really convinces me. Our study Bible mentioned that “the reed is a Herodian symbol,” and that makes better sense of the next comment about the soft robes, and the palaces, all of which together lead me to think that Jesus’s point here is the contrast of king and prophet.

That would be an intelligible contrast in its cultural context, surely: prophets are the counterparts of kings, they address kings, rebuke them when they do wrong, and call them to repentance. (Although the point about the reed shaken by the wind being spineless and shifting with the favorable winds might fit Roman puppet ruler Herod Antipas, too.)

So, these crowds of people Jesus is addressing went out into the wilderness – perhaps a bit like the Hebrews leaving Egypt and following Moses – to see a prophet [not a king], and not just any prophet, but the one who comes right before “the Holy One whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” … and set fire to everything; the one who comes right before “the great and terrible day of YHWH.”

In between Jesus’s two Malachi references, Jesus says something about the kingdom of heaven. It’s not all that clear what, exactly, or what it means, or what we should do with it.

A LOT OF PEOPLE have spilled a lot of ink on this, too. Weirdly, I have not come across – although I’d bet it’s out there – anyone who starts trying to figure this out by focusing on the verb translated “take it by force” in v12. People usually seem to begin by trying to figure out whether the verb translated “suffered violence” is a middle or a passive form of the Greek verb biazō [the NRSV opts for passive; if it were middle it would mean something more like “has been advancing itself with force”] and whether the noun translated “the violent” in the NRSV is meant to be a good thing or a bad thing. But those words are used only twice and once in the Bible, while harpazō is used a lot more often, and three times in Matthew, so that starting point seemed like it might be more helpful.

The basic meaning of harpazō is “carried off” – like plunder – or “snatched away” – like seeds snatched off the hard earth by birds. Which actually indicates the other two uses of the verb in Matthew: the plundering someone would do of a man’s house once you’d tied him up (Mt. 12:29), and the snatching away of the word that falls on hearts that do not understand it by the enemy (Mt. 13:19).

It’s still a little hard to understand how “the kingdom of heaven” itself can be carried off or snatched away, but if “the kingdom of heaven” is something like a mustard seed or a pearl or a grain of corn or treasure in a field we could probably picture it happening.

Thus, what is happening to the kingdom here in v12 seems to be negative, and it has been going on since the time of John the Baptist – who, we will recall, was preaching “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” which is what Jesus had been doing as well. So I gather that what is being violently opposed is perhaps the call to repentance, along with the good news that the kingdom is at hand, this wonderful immediate opportunity. That is what the “violent, impetuous” actors (according to the lexicon) have been “snatching away.”

So whether the kingdom is “advancing forcibly” or is “suffering violence,” and it seems entirely possible it could actually be both at once, it seems almost clear to me that there is active opposition to the announcement of the kingdom – something we might have been prepared for if we’d paid attention to Jesus’s “missionary discourse” in chapter 10 – as well as opposition to its reception by the kind of people who seem eager to receive it.

The sources of opposition are going to come into clearer focus in chapters 12 and 13. There is active opposition not only from the residents of royal palaces who throw people like John the Baptist into prison, but from those “wise and intelligent” (Mt. 11:25) characters who have been trained in the law and the prophets (which “prophesied [it] until John” and which are clearly not opposed to the kingdom), but not “for the kingdom” (Mt. 13:52), and so who are scandalized by the “new” material being brought out of the kingdom’s treasure by Jesus.

And then there is “this generation” (v16). “This generation” seems to be people different from “the crowds,” although some members of “the crowds” might also be part of “this generation.” “This generation” seems to focus on particular practices of the messengers, rather than the substance of their message or their achievements, and perhaps because of that always finds something to criticize.

So different from now.

I haven’t been able to think of or find an English equivalent for the proverb in v17, which seems to mean “You just won’t play along, will you?!” No matter what game we play. If anyone else knows of one, I’d love to hear it. [“The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” was the closest thing I could come up with, and that isn’t actually close at all.]

It might be worth noting that Jesus being “a glutton and a drunkard,” according to “this generation,” might make him eligible for stoning under the provisions of Deuteronomy 21:18-21.

Notice, too, that when the Son of Man “comes eating and drinking” and befriending tax collectors and sinners – who may be simple, or naïve, in thinking that getting more money or pleasure will satisfy them, and may not be actual “fools” in Proverbs’ sense of that word – it should probably remind us of Wisdom inviting “those who are simple” to “come eat of my bread, and drink of the wine I have mixed” (Proverbs 9:5).

“Wisdom is,” after all, “vindicated” – or justified, or shown to be in the right – “by her deeds.”

Like the “deeds of power” or miracles done in Chorazin and Bethsaida (v21), presumably.

I admit being perplexed by the choice of text for this week, because the clearest parallel in this chapter to the wisdom speeches of Proverbs that we’ve been looking at seems, to me, to be verses 28-30.

Or maybe I’m not perplexed, because that invitation follows Jesus’s announcement that he’s glad the Father has hidden “these things” – of the kingdom, presumably – from “the wise and intelligent (prudent)” and revealed them to “infants.” (Infants certainly qualify as “simple” or “immature.”) So what we would have to make of that in the context of wisdom would be something to think about.

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