Did Jesus fail to meet expectations in Matt 11?

The lectionary gospel reading for Advent 3 in Year A is Matt 11.2–11, and as usual is rather truncated, so you might want to extend the reading by a verse or two before and after to be fair to its setting.

The chapter begins with the second of Matthew’s five summary statements that conclude the five focussed sections of Jesus’ teaching:

When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in their cities (Matt 11.1)

The summary phrase varies slightly each time, but consistently includes ‘When he had finished…’ (compare Matt 7.28, 13.53, 19.1, 26.1). That he is going on to ‘teach and preach’ hints that the following section will not be neatly focussed on Jesus’ actions, in contrast to the blocks of teaching, but will in fact mix Jesus’ actions and his teachings, before we come to the next focussed block of teaching on the nature of the kingdom in chapter 13. The last part of Jesus’ teaching in chapter 10 emphasises Matthew’s version of Paul’s ‘body of Christ’ theology: those going in Jesus’ name represent his presence, so that how people respond to Jesus’ disciples is indicative of how they respond to Jesus.

“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matt 10.40–42)

This idea is an essential hermeneutical key to the much misinterpreted ‘parable of the sheep and the goats‘ in Matt 25.31–46; the ‘little ones’ here correspond to the ‘least of these my brethren’ in the parable, being the disciples of Jesus who are in need of assistance.

In fact, this section is all about how people respond to Jesus and to his kingdom ministry. From Matt 11.20, Jesus denounces the towns and villages (‘cities’ translating πόλεις doesn’t communicate their reality as quite small settlements) who have not received him. By contrast, from Matt 11.25, Jesus celebrates God’s grace in revealing himself to the ‘little children’ who have received him. In between these two responses sits John the Baptist, who is not affected by scepticism so much as niggling doubts about who Jesus is and what he does. This range of responses (also found in chapter 12) is continued in the narrative in chapter 13, where Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom begins with the parable of the soils, each soil demonstrating a different response to the sowing of the seed of the word. Parabolic variety of response reflects the previous narrative variety of response.

This part of chapter 11 consists of four different sections, all connected by the theme of John the Baptist, but which do not sit together very well in terms of their narrative coherence:

  1. John’s question about Jesus (2–6);
  2. Jesus’ question about reactions to John (7–11);
  3. The epochal turning point of John’s ministry (12–16);
  4. The contrast between Jesus and John (17–19).

Parts of this section run parallel to Luke 7.19–35, and it is worth comparing the two. In the first section, Matthew is much more abbreviated than Luke, who adds in the explanatory comment that Jesus had cured and delivered many people, and restored sight to the blind (Luke 7.21). As elsewhere, the different gospel writers feel free to shape their narratives, but tend to converge together again when it comes to recording Jesus’ words; save for the slight adjustment of tense to take into account his explanatory comment, and Matthew’s grouping of the six things into three pairs using ‘and’, Luke records the same words of Jesus as Matthew does.

(There might be implications here in terms of synoptic relations—though it is hard to say in which direction the evidence points. On the one hand, Matthew might be construed as doing with Luke what he does with Mark, in cutting out extraneous detail and abbreviating his account—suggesting that Matthew was dependant on Luke. On the other hand, Luke might be construed as tidying up Matthew’s account, adding necessary detail, and making the whole thing flow better, thus suggesting Luke was dependant on Matthew, in agreement with Mark Goodacre’s argument about editorial fatigue.)

Although Matthew has identified the ministry of John more closely with the ministry of Jesus than the other gospels, he has already suggested that there is some tension between John’s disciples and the disciples of Jesus in relation to the question of fasting: where Mark and Luke note ‘people’ raising the question of why Jesus’ disciples don’t fast, in Matt 9.14 it is John’s disciples who ask the question.

John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas in Perea, and it would not be an unnatural place to harbour doubts about his own ministry and the ministry of Jesus. In the ancient world, prison was not a place of punishment so much as a place of holding whilst the prisoner awaits judgement and punishment, so John is awaiting his final fate.

In using language of ‘the one who is to come’ (Gk ὁ ἐρχόμενος, the coming-one), John is using the language of eschatological expectation, and contributes to the synoptic idea that Jesus was one who was sent into the world by God, an idea more fully developed in John’s gospel. We are not told of the grounds for John’s questioning and uncertainty about the significance of Jesus’ ministry. One possibility might be that Jesus’ ministry did not have the political dimension that many might have hoped for—but there is no evidence at all to support this thesis. Another, more likely, possibility is that Jesus’ ministry did not appear to have the element of judgement that John had anticipated, and that he associated too much with the sinful whilst playing fast and loose with issues of purity. If Jesus could deliver people from the Evil One in his exorcisms, why could be not deliver the nation from evil men?

The identification of Jesus as the ‘stronger one’ which John had made in chapter 3 is apparently now less clear to him. His question is not hostile so much as uncertain, looking for confirmation of his previous insight. (R T France, NICNT, p 422)

This doubt is not fatal for John, as he still refers to the ‘deeds of Messiah’ in his question; in Matthew, Christos is a messianic title rather than functioning as a proper name, introduced with emphasis in Matt 1.1, 16, 17, 18 and forming the heart of Peter’s confession in Matt 16.16.

Jesus’ answer should be understood to refer to his teaching as well as his actions, since he refers to ‘what you hear and see’, and he alludes to two texts in Isaiah:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. (Is 35.5–6)

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners. (Is 61.1)

These allusions work better within the narrative of Luke, since Jesus has already read from the scroll of Isaiah in Luke 4, but Matthew also draws on other passages in Isaiah to emphasise that Jesus’ coming is the fulfilment of the hoped-for coming of God to his people. As with John’s predictions in chapter 3, these passages look to both the coming of God himself, in person to his people and without intermediary (Is 35.4), and the anticipation of God’s anointed one making his presence felt.

Jesus’ concluding aphorism might naturally be translated ‘Blessed is the one who is not offended by me’. But the verb here, skandalizomai, has in Matthew a more specific sense of stumbling and failing to receive the kingdom or persist in its life—or even to reject outright the ministry of Jesus. Your sinful eye can cause you to thus ‘stumble’ (Matt 5.29); the plants with shallow roots ‘stumble’ and wither in the sun’s heat (Matt 13.21); and those in Jesus’ home town ‘stumbled’ and rejected him (Matt 13.57). Half of al the occurrences of this word in the gospels come in Matthew.

This does not tell us that John is falling outside the boundaries of the kingdom as such—but it does warn us that our frustration that Jesus is not doing what we expect him to do can be the source of serious spiritual problems.

In the next section, Jesus turns the tables: after John has asked Jesus a question about his ministry, Jesus now asks the crowds a question (or series of questions) about John’s ministry and their response to it.

The metaphor of a ‘reed swaying in the wind’ is a natural metaphor to use, since reeds would grow in the marshy banks of the Jordan, and John’s uncompromising message of repentance and judgement contrasted starkly with reeds flexing and giving way to each changing breeze. The language of ‘soft’ clothing uses the adjective malakos which we also find in 1 Cor 6.9; it suggests not just softness to the touch of clothing, but moral indulgence and compromise. The supreme irony here is that John sits in the dungeon beneath a palace where (morally) soft men wear (physically) soft clothing, whilst John contrasts in both his character and his attire.

John is a prophet—but he is the last and the greatest of prophets, because (in effect) he signals the end of the era of Old Testament prophecy before the beginning of the new era of the kingdom. Here Matthew includes Jesus’ mention of the prophetic word of Malachi, which Mark included (but Matthew did not) alongside the prophetic word of Isaiah which pointed to the meaning of John’s ministry in Mark 1 (contrasted with Matt 3).

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. (Mal 3.1)

But once again, the use of the OT is freighted with Christological significance: God no longer sends his messenger to prepare his own way, but the way of Jesus (‘you’ rather than ‘me’) who brings to Israel the presence of their God.

So despite being the greatest of the old prophetic age, John cannot compare with the age that is now coming in the ministry of Jesus. This is not to denigrate John’s ministry or his significance, but to signal that, in the coming of Jesus, we see the turning of the ages, and the beginning of God’s work to make all things new. In Advent, we look forward to this work’s completion when Jesus returns once more.

Thus, to the challenge not to stumble if Jesus does not meet our expectations, Matthew adds the challenge of both recognising Jesus’ significance, and living in anticipation of his return.

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12 thoughts on “Did Jesus fail to meet expectations in Matt 11?”

  1. Just a point re Isa 35:5-6. The context does not seem to be the coming of the Messiah in meekness, but his coming in vengeance, at a time when Israel is in extremis (Isa 35:4) – the same vengeance as in Isa 61:2, directed against Israel’s enemies, not Israel itself.

    I think I would therefore understand the allusion as indicating that Jesus is the one who, at some time still in the future, will come to save Israel, and it will be God himself who comes.

    • As this is a reading for Advent, discussion of judgement is entirely appropriate!

      However, in Matthew 11, Jesus alludes to Isaiah 35 in reference to what is happening at that time and in Luke 4, having read from Isaiah 61, Jesus says, “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” So, both of these are placed not in the future but in Jesus’ present and both omit the reference to vengeance. This must be significant.

      If one reads Isaiah 35 and 61 as about the salvation of Israel in the end of exile then vengeance is against her external enemies. I might tentatively suggest that perhaps Jesus wanting to move away from the association of the defeat of external oppressors.

      Assuming one reads ‘stumble’ in v6, as Ian suggest, then there is judgement in the passage, and it is judgement at the time. One might consider Isaiah 8:13-15 in relation to this.

      I found by using the STEP bible another interesting detail in this area. Isaiah 35:4 and Isaiah 61:2 in the Hebrew both have na.qam, this is translated in the LXX differently. It seems a common translation is the Greek verb ekdikeō (e.g. Leviticus 26:25) but Isaiah 35:4 (and Isaiah 34:8) has ‘day of krisis‘ (judgement) and Isaiah 61:2 ‘day of antapodosis‘ (reward). I’m not sure what one might conclude from this.

      • >In Matthew 11, Jesus alludes to Isaiah 35 in reference to what is happening at that time and in Luke 4, having read from Isaiah 61, Jesus says, “today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” So, both of these are placed not in the future but in Jesus’ present.<
        Yes, but my comment was more nuanced than you imply. Jesus was indicating (in the 1st century) that he was the one who would come to save Israel (in the future). The works of healing were proof of that: they anticipated the much greater works of healing that would accompany his future fulfilment of Isa 35.

        Likewise, the prophecy of Isa 61:1-2 was fulfilled by Jesus only on the basis that the reference to vengeance was omitted; the greater fulfilment (including the vengeance) still lay in the future. Jesus *proclaimed* the good news of what would happen; the actualisation of that good news had yet to occur.

        English 'vengeance' is not a perfect translation, IMO, as it connotes excessive repayment. 'Retribution' is perhaps closer – naqam/ekdikesis being an act of pure, measured justice.

  2. An interesting detail is given by Tom Wright in his “Matthew for Everyone.” He states that the coins of Herod Antipas could have a reed on them. This is confirmed by the Wikipedia page:
    which states that a variant type has an upright reed on the obverse.

    Is what Jesus says in vv7-8 a dig at Herod Antipas?

    • How interesting! I wonder what the reed signified? It is listed on the article as an alternative to the palm branch which signifies celebration.

      If it was a dig, then that would make sense, in that it sits in parallel with the language of ‘soft clothes’ which is certainly a dig at Antipas.

  3. “One possibility might be that Jesus’ ministry did not have the political dimension that many might have hoped for—but there is no evidence at all to support this thesis”

    It seems to me that John is in prison and he is hearing some of the elements of Isaiah 61 fulfilled but not the release of the captive – and he is the captive / prisoner. Jesus answer only highlights the lack of prisoners-being-released still more. Poor John is told that the other elements of Isaiah’s prophecy are being fulfilled but not the one which most affects him. Or at least to be more precise, the gospel writers frame this correspondence with the language of Isaiah 61, and Luke has made much more of the passage in Luke 4, and in doing so highlight the fact that the captives / prisoners are not being released.
    No editorial comment is made; we like John are left hanging on the partial fulfilment, and it seems to me this does point to the need for us to engage with a more political exegesis, whatever we decide that then means.
    John is in prison for a “political” reason after all, and he will die because of an outrageous injustice, a victim of a brutal king. Jesus will also be executed by the ruling powers.
    John asks “Are you the one?” but we have to answer in what way Jesus is the One, the Messiah, and how that impacts our way of living here and in our political situations. The answer from Jesus is not as clear and / or as comforting as we might want it to be, but I think there is some political dimension to it, even if some then interpret it as a “don’t get caught up in politics” dimension.

  4. Another complementary detail, I’m pretty sure that John’s doubts are a clear sign he has an element of clinical depression/anxiety. I doubt if it’s the fact of being attacked by authorities. He’s had so much conflict with so many the only question about that would be when and who. However physically he’s used to the clean open air, daylight, fair amounts of solitude, a balanced lean diet. I’m sure his disciples didn’t leave him hungry but I suspect the smell, noise, dark, sleep deprivation would have affected him as much of not more so than most. One symptom of classic depression as opposed to a reactive sadness and flatness eg at a bereavement, is having thoughts that are clearly untypical of the person. I would think John’s questions get a mention because they shocked his followers who’d never have seen him like this before.

    I love Jesus’ pragmatic and kind response. He isn’t shocked or condemning. He just gives a polite answer. It can be very hard to know how to react when a figure of respect starts coming out with odd things or doubt things. I hope people stop to think I wonder of this is neurological before condemning, but at the same time don’t follow blindly everything a leader says, just because it’s them. Of course these days it’s less likely to be the effect of imprisonment and more likely to be when memory/health loss are affecting someone or they get burnout.

  5. 20 or so years ago, I heard a CoE Bishop preach that Jesus failed! And me, as a new convewordsrt, knowing he had no idea what he was talking about, and thinking, who does he think he is, as he, his words, carried no authority.

  6. I don’t know if this helps anyone else, but on Sunday morning I’m going to deliver a monologue, starting something like this:

    “My cell is a small room, stone-walled, deafened with brutality. I am at times terrified of my cell-mates, who seem to find me somehow amusing, and at times terrified of being left alone. Food is thrown irregularly down, and there is seldom an opportunity to empty the bucket in the corner. It’s dark, especially for someone used to the fierce sunlight of the Judean desert. I am disappointed with the way my career has turned out, disappointed with my political leaders, disappointed with God.

    O, I should have introduced myself. My name’s John. John the Baptist. Not that I do any baptising any more, now that I’m confined to this cell. There was a time when my diet was locusts and wild honey. Wild honey, mind you, not domesticated honey, from wild, free bees, not imprisoned, shackled bees. I was so wild I followed the bees home and put my head in their nests to get a chunk of honeycomb out. That all seems a long time ago. Are you surprised I’m disappointed with God?

    I hear some of you are a bit disappointed today, too. I can’t take that away, and it’s probably helpful for you to lament a bit – those that are happy about the election results will just have to accept that from you. It’s easier for them to weep with those of you that weep, than it is for you to rejoice with them who rejoice. But I want to share what Jesus told me, when I was disappointed with God. He told me to look for where God is at work, and what the signs of God really were…”

  7. I’ve come back to this. Been thinking about John’s question, about John’s well being, about his humility.

    I remember Brother Andrew talking about the effects of imprisonment under the Soviet régime. He didn’t want to glamourise suffering for your faith. He said something to the effect that after a week it feels like the darkness envelops you. For even the most devout faith deserts you. You have to cling on to the tiniest of glimmers of light of things memorised.

    I was wondering if maybe John sending his disciples to investigate Jesus was a self sacrificial act. He probably guessed he was due some sort of sticky end, if not now then later, and he also knew that if he was making motorways to the king then people shouldn’t hang about on laybys admiring his work but should get on to the king himself – except I’ve got the metaphor the wrong way round, it’s inviting the real king to come along on that road of course. Either way maybe he didn’t want his people to miss out on a moment of Jesus by hanging on to him?

    And the good news chroniclers maybe were thinking of the good folk in acts who’d only had John’s baptism and needed to make thlink between the two.

    And I don’t suppose it was an easy cross over to make either. I remember when I made my decisive steps to faith in the mid seventies in a brand new new church (a very beautiful gentle one with mainly renewed methodists, I seemed exotic being Anglican lol) then in a university CU that was devoted ascetic evangelical the year I arrived, had *zappings* the next year and in ’78 had loads of ‘mature’ spiritually experienced freshers arrive. What a contrast. Those who’d been in the wave of holiness movements found us downright hooligans. We’d occasionally have wine with a special meal or accompany work colleagues’ parties to night clubs (and be happily bopping away well after midngiht cos we were “dry” while the drinkers were in a depressed slump lol), we enjoyed including some happy clappy in our worship as well as occasional touchy feely hugging passing the peace and we looked like veritable hedonists. Much the same as Jesus’ disciples appeared to John’s bunch. Culturally not an easy mix despite the near identical theology! I remember the same happening with the ‘signs and Wimbers’ and the events of 94.

    We do need to be gentle with each other, and not Tigger all over each other too much. I think John was very gracious in asking his question but not in a way that would undermine faith in Jesus (the stumbling I suppose that was being referred to?) or I hope not anyway, but in such a way so that they’d get the resoundingly good answer they needed to be able to make the transfer. My speculation for this week anyway.

    Reading some of the comments on this blog I think there are maybe theologians who’ve held out against all odds to how they saw “biblical” theology who may find it hard to accept a slightly more flexible interpretations of some doctrines in the light of recent philological, archeological, scientific, anthropological discoveries and more. Especially in areas such as creation, hell etc some of us must seem beyond the pale to some of them. I like this blog because you are clear and firm without harshness or stomping. Thank you.


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