For whom are you looking: the herald

jesus-christ-from-hagia-sophiaMatthew 11:2-11.  7 As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. 9 Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you.’ 11 Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Jesus’ View of John. John’s preaching had created a sensation (see 3:5), and the movement into the wilderness had been a remarkable phenomenon. Jesus now examines its motives, to show the real significance of John. The series of three questions and answers suggests motives progressively closer to a true understanding of John. A reed shaken by the wind is a metaphor for a weak, pliable person; John was not such a person, and the implied answer is ‘Of course not’. It was John’s rugged independence which attracted a following. Nor was he dressed in fine clothing; far from it, as 3:4 shows. It was as a man conspicuously separate from the royal palace that attracted them. (There may be an ironical reference to his present residence in a ‘royal palace’—as a prisoner of conscience in Herod’s fortress) His rough clothing in fact points to his real role, as a prophet (see 3:4), and the crowds would gladly have accepted this description of John. But even that is not enough.

Tucked into the discussion of John the Baptist is an intriguing composite OT quotation. The disciples of John have returned to their imprisoned master with Jesus’ answer to their question about his identity. Jesus takes this occasion to comment on John to the crowds (11:7–19). He dispels the notion that John was a weak or pampered figure (11:7–8), declaring instead that he was a genuine prophet, “and more than a prophet” (11:9). In language reminiscent of earlier testimony concerning John (see 3:3), Jesus explains, “This is the one about whom it is written (a standard way of referring to Hebrew Scripture),

‘Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; (Exodus 23:20)
he will prepare your way before you.’  (Malachi 3:1)

The first clause quotes Exod. 23:20; the second, Mal. 3:1. In context, Exod. 23:20 refers to God sending his angel to guard the Israelites, as they proceed from Mount Sinai, to prepare the way for them to take possession of the promised land. But in both Greek and Hebrew, the same words can mean either “angel” or “messenger” (and angels typically function as messengers), so an application to a human messenger in a different context follows naturally.

The language of Exod. 23:20 recurs in Mal. 3:1. Malachi’s prophecy may in fact deliberately allude to the Exodus text. This time, however, the messenger seems to refer to a human being who will prepare the way for the Lord to come suddenly to his temple, a messenger who in Mal. 4:5 is equated with Elijah and described as one who “will turn the fathers’ hearts toward their children” (4:6), an example of the reconciliation that results from the kind of repentance for which John the Baptist had been calling.

The primary function of the composite citation is to answer the question of John’s identity. As in Mt. 3:3, he is viewed as a great prophet, preparing for the arrival of the messianic age. His ministry overlaps the beginning of the Messiah’s ministry, but he will not live to be part of the new covenant inaugurated by Christ’s death. But if the forerunner is here, then the Messiah must be near.

Indeed, John is the greatest of all pre-kingdom humans (“those born among women”), but because of the greatness of the kingdom age, all of the kingdom’s citizens will in some sense be greater even than John (11:11; cf. 11:13).

And a Messiah who can so solemnly pronounce John the greatest of all mortals to date (11:11) sounds like someone who thinks that he is more than a mere mortal. This suspicion is reinforced when we realize that Jesus is substituting his coming for the day of the Lord (i.e., the coming of Yahweh) in Mal. 4:5.

Some Final Thoughts. Within the narrative of Matthew, John the Baptists helps establish the identity of Jesus – something especially key during the Advent Season. “Whose birth are we preparing for, anyway?”  And this is as important a question for us in our day as it was in the life and time of John the Baptist.

Then as now I suspect Jesus would still not fit our messianic expectations, would fail to conform to our popular messianic expectations. Why? Then as now, and in keeping with Gospel tradition, our expectations of Jesus probably mostly correct but almost certainly incomplete. We should not think ourselves immune from “hometown expectations.” In contrast to what Jesus was did and said, many contemporary people harbor false or incomplete expectations about Christ that need correcting.

A friar priest, a friend of mine, holds that if one hasn’t been offended by the gospel that is Jesus, it is likely that one has an incomplete understanding of the gospel.  A Jesus who is always comforting and never afflicting is an incomplete Jesus.


Notes

Matthew 11:7 reed swayed by the wind: The word reed (kalamos) refers to tall, hollow grasses growing in shallow water near the Jordan River.  The question may ask (a) what were you going to see?  The landscape or the prophet?  Alternatively, (b) the question may imply a contrast between the flexible reeds and the unbending prophet.  A third explanation is possible: (c) the reed appears on coins minted under Herod Antipas – thus comparing the unbending John and his jailer Herod.

Matthew 11:8 fine clothing…in royal palaces: Compares and contrasts John and Herod, but also echo the prophetic dress of John (3:4) as the antithesis of such finery.

Matthew 11:9 a prophet…more than a prophet: In common Jewish belief there had been no prophecy in Israel since the last of the Old Testament prophets, Malachi. The coming of a new prophet was eagerly awaited, and Jesus agrees that John was such. Yet he was more than a prophet, for he was the precursor of the one who would bring in the new and final age. The Old Testament quotation is a combination of Malachi 3:1; Exodus 23:20 with the significant change that the “before me” of Malachi becomes “before you.” The messenger now precedes not God, as in the original, but Jesus.

Matthew 11:10 he will prepare your way before you:  This passage is taken from Mal 3:1 and points forward to that same “he” in Malachi 4:5.  That verse eventually became a fundamental part of Jewish eschatological expectation that the literal Elijah would return from heaven to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. The oldest known text to reflect this hope predates the Christian era by two centuries (Sir. 48:10), though no specific reference to the Messiah appears in this context. At least in the later rabbinic literature it is clear that Mal. 3:1 and 4:5 were connected, so that the messenger in the former text was equated with Elijah in the latter (e.g., Tg. Ps.-J. Num. 25:12). A late midrash also links Exod. 23:20 with Mal. 3:1 because of the similar language: God’s pattern of sending special messengers recurs (Exod. Rab. 32.9).

Matthew 11:11 none greater than John: John’s preeminent greatness lies in his function of announcing the imminence of the kingdom (Matthew 3:1). yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he: to be in the kingdom is so great a privilege that the least who has it is greater than the Baptist.

Sources

  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) pp. 266-68
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000)  p. 249
  • R.T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) pp. 195-98
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) pp. 154-62
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) pp. 878
  • John P. Meier, Matthew, New Testament Message 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990) pp. 119-20
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at www.crossmarks.com
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