S. Advent 3.19 “The Violent Bear It Away” Matt. 11:2-15
Our Gospel today presents 2 conundrums for modern biblical scholars: [and no, the pink candle is not one. Modern scholars know from Matt. 29 the pink candle is for the John the Baptist’s lucky pink polo shirt that he always wore playing tennis with Jesus at the country club]
No, the conundrums are: 1) When John the Baptist sends disciples asking Jesus “Are you the one who is to come or do we look for another?” is he asking for himself, or “asking for a friend”? 2) When Jesus says, near the end: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force…” is this violence a good thing or a bad thing? Are the “violent” bad guys like Herod, Caiaphas that we should hate, or are they good guys like Elijah, Matthew, and John the Baptist that we should emulate?
How you answer those two questions massively changes our takeaways from the Gospel! And it’s one place where the Lutheran “Yes!” really doesn’t work. If this violence, these violent are bad, basically we really need to know that, so we’re against it; but, if it’s a “good thing” then that massively alters the picture of Christian faith and the faithful, right? (not to mention making us seriously re-think the Crusades and other such matters!).
OK, big picture: this was no conundrum at all for the Greek and Latin fathers of the first 6 centuries (nor for all the medieval and reformation fathers) they all said virtually without exception: “Easy, peezy, lemon-squeezy: 1) John is asking for a friend. His disciples are faltering in their faith so he tells them, “Go and tell Jesus: ‘Hey! We’re wondering: are You really the One or do we look for another?’ Maybe don’t stand too close when you ask Him, though!” How did we know this? Because Jesus says John is the greatest of all born of women and Jesus unremittingly denounces unbelievers and doubters as not so great, Bob!
These fathers also had an easy answer to the modern objection: “But, Jesus says: the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John, which makes it sound like John isn’t in the kingdom anymore!” John’s greatness of which Jesus speaks is that seen in this world as a fiery prophet, wildly popular teacher, bold speaker of truth to power, and finalist, as brave martyr, imprisoned because he called out Herod for bad behavior (though even Herod came to like and admire John, and got tricked into having him executed). The greatness of the least, newly baptized Christian baby is greater than all the might, adulation, and power of the great in this world. And BTW: John belongs in both camps. He is both great in this world, and he is great in the kingdom of heaven, because he was martyred for the faith by evil people just as Jesus was too!
So, John is definitely “asking for a friend” and Jesus’ praise for John is not merely for his great deeds of opposition to worldly corruption, because those courageous stances witness to his hidden, unwavering heavenly faith in Jesus the Christ for which John too was martyred. So: emulate John as great in worldly and heavenly ways alike!
Which leads to question 2): is the violence the kingdom of heaven suffers a good thing, such that the violent who seize it are to be seen as heroes, not villains? The fathers of the church, Greek and Latin, from the 1st century through the 16th speak with one voice: it’s a GOOD thing! Emulate theviolent!Extremism in the service of virtue is no vice! Luke 16:16 is a parallel passage in which the force of the Greek verb βιαζεται—translated as “violence” or “force”, is clearly seen as a good thing: Jesus says plainly: “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces (βιαζεται) his way into it…” The Gospel Jesus and the Apostles preach is a battering ram by which heaven is taken by storm.
You can see this in our Gospel reading, in the phrase “from the days of John the Baptist”. John is the last of the Old Testament prophets and the first to point specifically to Jesus as Savior. The prophets of the Old Testament were obviously persecuted and harassed as were all the faithful of Israel. That is nothing new. Yet, Jesus plainly says this “violence” He has in mind is new, suffered by heaven only since the days of John.
So this “violence” of which our Lord speaks here in Matt. 11:12 can’t be the violence the faithful have suffered for their faith since Abel, Noah, Jeremiah, et. al. Note well: this “violence” is something that heaven suffers not something the faithful suffer, but rather something they perpetrate for heaven’s sake!).
It’s the violence of faith empowered by John’s Gospel: that the Christ, the Savior is here and His name is Jesus. What was shadowy and promised is now concrete and present in Jesus the Christ. This is the battering ram bashing in the door to heaven that the law and the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, Greeks, Romans, Herod, Pilate (the whole rotten, elitist crew!) have shut and locked against us. The Gospel that Jesus is here!—the Strong Man armed, the Christ, Savior of sinners—this is the rallying cry that makes those who formerly were thought illegal immigrants: Gentiles, Samaritans, tax collectors, riff-raff, convicts, take heaven by storm at Christ’s Word; and Jesus smiles at this, BIG…(!)
For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. What was only a shadowy hope, the dream of faith, is concrete reality in the Jesus John has fingered as Christ and Lord and God.
That’s how the Church read this passage until…the mid 19th century. Since then, as Jeff Gibbs shows in his Concordia Commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, most modern biblical scholars oppose the consensus of 16 centuries of the Church’s reading that John is a staunch believer worthy of emulation, that the kingdom of heaven isn’t waltzed into in ballet slippers, tip-toeing through the tulips, but is stormed, violently, by crusaders whose boots will trample the infidels unjustly occupying the Holy City. Virtually all modern scholars (including, sadly, Gibbs himself) insist that John is faltering in the Faith and that the violence of which Jesus speaks is a bad thing to be scorned and not emulated. Maybe this is why this same crowd of “scholars” insist that the church’s main (missional) job is to accommodate and befriend the infidels (because they insist all humans must really be… pals).
This is a massive change in how Christendom reads and tells the Story! No wonder it’s tough being a Christian today. No wonder much of what passes as Christian is anything but, though it fools so many!
We don’t like hearing there are Two Ways—that not everyone loves Jesus in the End (our dangerous Friend); that becoming a Christian’s a tough road, more like joining the army than the choir [though I do love choirs, army choirs especially!]; that Christ comes not to make dull conformists content with Facebook friends and fulfillment center jobs, but to make supernatural, strange, rebels who consider His violent death on the cross not a crying shame, but glorious gain, “a treasure safe on high/ that will not fail or leave me as earthly riches fly”, the love of which makes us crusaders laying siege to heaven, suffering any loss save that of faith, violently opposed to sin, death, Satan—like Jesus…
To end, I’ve got Bad News: most will die in the heavenly siege. Good News: the violent bear it away; for in dying violently, faithfully (for Christ’s sake!), we’re seized by Peace, surpassing understanding, guarding heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.