Advent 3 • Matthew 11:2–15 • December 12, 2010
by Jeffrey A. Kloha
Two phrases are problematic in this text. First, Jesus seems to diminish John in verse 11. So who is the “greatest?” Greatness in the kingdom is the opposite of what is considered greatness outside of it. The greatest are those who serve (Mt 20:26; 23:11) but above all—directly answering the question “who is the greatest”—is the little child (Mt 18:1–4). A “child” does not represent cuteness, innocence, purity, or any such modern western ideas of a child. Rather, in near-eastern culture a child is one who cannot offer anything, needs constant care and supervision, and is a burden until he can do something useful to support the family (see the recent Concordia Commentary on Matthew by Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs). So in the kingdom the “greatest” are those who most need care and are most a burden—exactly the people Jesus was serving by opening eyes and ears and making the lame walk. Those to whom honor and attention are to be given are the weakest in the world. John was a mighty preacher, indeed a prophet, but the powerful preacher is not the one in the kingdom of heaven who should be receiving the attention. Instead of questioning Jesus, John should be serving him and others; instead of worrying about John, the crowds should be worrying about the suffering ones in their midst, for in serving them the kingdom of heaven is evident.
Second, this kingdom of heaven “undergoes violence, and violent people try to snatch it away” (11:12). The immediate subject of this comment is John himself, who announced the kingdom and suffered violence and ultimately death from violent people who try to destroy (a conative present) the kingdom. So it is with Jesus, whose preaching and service is questioned and rejected, and ultimately who will be put death—but his kingdom will not be conquered. This is not a condemnation of those who try to battle their way into the kingdom (though of course that is not the nature of this kingdom, which cannot be taken for oneself), but an explanation of what has happened to John and will happen to Jesus (and ultimately his followers; Mt 5:11; 23:34).
Pasteurized, homogenized, standardized, lowest common denominator. A Big Mac tastes the same in Peking or Peoria. A Budweiser tastes the same in Fargo or Florida. Lowes, Applebee’s, and Target can be found clustered together in big boxes along the highways that head out of every city in America. Nothing is unique, distinctive. Jesus Christ is often thrown into our homogenization process. He is made to look like other religious figures; his teaching is reduced to Oprah-esque spirituality and Dr. Phil-ish advice. He becomes comfortable, undemanding.
What was John thinking in his question sent to Jesus? Was he disillusioned because the promised kingdom didn’t come in time to keep him out of prison? Did he want a flashier, fire-and-brimstone Messiah? The winnowing fork is in his hand (Mt 3:11–12), but the chaff is not being burnt up soon enough? Whatever the reason, Jesus didn’t match his preconceived ideas. For him, Jesus was expected to do what all other messiahs—past, present, and future—would be expected to do: Destroy our enemies and make us prosper. Jesus, of course, did not come to do what all other messiahs were expected to do. Rather than go to the top and take his faithful with him as the new rulers, authorities, and powerful, he goes to the lowest—the blind, lame, deaf, poor (even the dead!), and lifts them up. You want to know what this reign of God is all about? The least will be served. Look! It is already happening! (Mt 11:2–6).
Jesus then turns on the crowds (11:7), for neither were their expectations being met. John was popular. Crowds went out to him (Mt 3:5–6). But what did they go out to see? A celebrity? A fad? Had the preaching of repentance accomplished its goal? The crowds, like their preacher John, were not responding to Jesus’s ministry any better than John. The crowds’ adulation of John was not enough. He was the forerunner, THE prophet promised at the coming of the great and terrible Day of the Lord. And indeed, the winnowing fork is in Jesus’s hand (Mt 11:9–14). But it is not intended for others. It is intended for you: he who has ears, let him hear! Judgment is at hand! (Mt 13:9, 16). You filtered out what you wanted from John and his message. And so you filtered out what you wanted from the Messiah he announced.
Yet John was indeed a prophet. He came to announce the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven, and with that announcement a call to repent. This kingdom does not match expectations; neither our expectations of victory and glory, nor the expectations of those who wish to establish themselves as king and so seek to destroy the kingdom of heaven. But this kingdom will not be conquered (Mt 16:18). The kingdom ours remaineth.
To what are we called in this text? To hear again the message to repent, to turn to this king and receive his forgiveness. And, as heirs of his kingdom, to have the filters taken off our lenses and see the least as those whom we are called to serve in anticipa- tion of the full revealing of that kingdom on the Last Day (Mt 25:31–46). And at that feast there will be nothing filtered or homogenized, only full-bodied Jesus.