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:
- John’s question about Jesus (2–6);
- Jesus’ question about reactions to John (7–11);
- The epochal turning point of John’s ministry (12–16);
- 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. This is the only other place where the title is used.
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.
For video conversation about the issues here, join James and Ian: