When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Matthew 11:2-11 – NRSV).
There is a parallel text in Luke 7.18–35.
Both Matthew and Luke are dependent upon Q rather than Mark for this text.
There are three parts here concerning John and Jesus. The first is Matthew 11:2-6 (paralleled in Luke 7:18-23) concerning John’s question to Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come?”. The second is Matthew 11:7-11 (paralleled in Luke 7:24-28) concerning Jesus remarks about John. The third is Matthew 11:16-19 (paralleled in Luke 7:31-35) is a parable about the negative responses to both John and Jesus. This last part is not included in our Gospel today.
One commentator writes: “Since the units follow the same order in both Matthew and Luke, we may assume that this was also their order in Q. Although the three units all deal with the relationship of Jesus to John, in fact they are quite different in content and style, leaving the impression that three originally unconnected units were joined in Q on the basis of their dealing with the same general topic” (Daniel J Harrington, SJ, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 158).
John heard in prison: The works of Josephus also record the imprisonment of John – see Antiquities 18:116–119. Matthew 4:12 records the death of John.
the Messiah: The Greek word is christou. One commentator writes of the use of the word christos: “The word entered English from Latin Christus, which transliterates Gk christos. Outside the LXX, NT, and early Jewish and Christian writings, christos is an adjective meaning ‘rubbed on’ or ‘used as an ointment or salve’. It modifies the word indicating the substance so applied, as in the expression to elaion to christon ‘the anointing oil’ (Lev 21:10, 12 [LXX]).
“Elsewhere in the LXX, the term is only used in connection with persons in the meaning ‘anointed’, translating Heb māšı̂aḥ. This is also the case in early Jewish writings. In the books of the NT, christos is used generally of the coming ‘anointed one’ (‘Messiah’) of Jewish expectation or specifically of Jesus, believed to be this ‘Messiah’. In the Greek text of John 1:41—’We have found the Messiah (which means Christ)’—the Greek messias and christos are used (cf. John 4:25).
“The word christos occurs about 350 times in the NT (exact figures are difficult because of the many variants in the manuscript tradition, particularly in the case of Jesus). It is often found in the combinations ‘Jesus Christ’ and ‘Christ Jesus’, and sometimes functions as a second name. In a considerable number of cases it cannot be demonstrated that christos carries the meaning ‘Messiah’ or has messianic overtones” (M de Jonge, “Christ”, D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 1), New York: Doubleday, 1992, 914).
At this time there were expectations of the Messiah and John is inquiring if Jesus is the in fact the one they have waited for. Doubts and confusion abounded because there was a strong expectation that the Messiah would be a military leader: “The Davidic Messiah of Psalms of Solomon 17 will reign over Israel (17:21), purge Jerusalem from its Gentile conquerors (17:22–25), gather a holy people and judge the tribes (17:26–27), and restore the tribal boundaries (17:28–29). This righteous king will avoid the errors and sins committed by Israel’s kings in the past, for he will rely on the God who made him powerful in the holy spirit (17:37). The day when the Messiah will reign is ‘the day of mercy in blessing’ (18:5). This Messiah is the ideal Jewish king of the future who is primarily a military and political leader.
“It is possible that Jesus’ list of the ‘works of the Christ’ deliberately contrasts with the kind of messianic expectations expressed in circles such as those that produced Psalms of Solomon. Then Jesus would be saying: ‘I do the works of the Messiah, but not necessarily those of the military-political Messiah. Nevertheless, I do the works of the Messiah, and therefore I am the “one who is to come”’” (Daniel J Harringon SJ, op cit, 160).
the blind see etc: The list of works here echoes Isaiah: “Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead (Isaiah 26:19); “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6); “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1).
does not take offense: Daniel Harrington writes: “The Greek verb is skandalizō. Its appearance here expresses the theme of the next few chapters in which people (Pharisees and Jesus’ own family) do take offense at him (ch. 12), and Jesus explains the mixed reception he receives by means of parables (ch. 13). Perhaps the saying also suggests that Jesus realized that even John would not wholly approve of him” (Daniel J Harrington SJ, op cit, 166). It is also worth noting that in Matthew 16:23 Jesus rebukes Peter for being a skandalon when he says he will not let Jesus go to Jerusalem and suffer and die.
G K Chesterton famously observed: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried” (G K Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World, Start Classics. Kindle Edition. Kindle Locations 360-361). The Good News of the Kingdom, proclaimed by John the Baptist, Jesus, the Apostles and the Church ever since, is that we have available to us a new creation in Christ. That is the “Christian ideal”. It is a matter of being before it is a matter of doing. And it is also a matter of gift rather that conquest. But this is very difficult to comprehend and explain. Perhaps that is why the Good News has been too often reduced to a moral project. Moral projects are easier to comprehend and explain. They can also support our yearning to be in control.
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 11:2-11 – we hear Jesus say that John the Baptist is not as great as the least in the kingdom. This is primarily a statement about the kingdom, not John. John is in fact a profoundly moral man. He is a man of integrity, magnanimity, wisdom and courage. What is on offer in Jesus Christ is something beyond that, an entirely unmerited gift. Through him, with him and in him, we share in the life of God. Yes, it is in our best interests to lead a moral life to open ourselves to the gift. And the more we are one with God the more moral our lives will be. But the Christ life must never be reduced to the moral life. All human beings can – indeed should – lead a moral life.
Jesus is “Emmanuel …. a name which means God-is-with-us” (Matthew 1:23). It is precisely this Presence of God – this enfleshing of God – that makes this new way of being possible. Jesus urges us to pray daily for the complete triumph of this kingdom – see Matthew 6:10. In the kingdom all will be at one with God and God’s intentions. The kingdom is not the product of our moral rectitude but God’s infinite love and mercy.
Listen to the early tradition, represented by St Irenaeus (130-202 CE). He came from Smyrna – modern day Izmir in Turkey. Irenaeus had seen and heard the preaching of St Polycarp (69-156 CE), the last known living connection with the Apostles, who in turn was said to have heard John the Evangelist. Irenaeus became the bishop of Lyons in France – where the Marists emerged some sixteen hundred and fifty years later – and is honoured particularly for his role in the early development of Christian theology. St Irenaeus reflects on the Incarnation: “How could the human race go to God if God had not come to us? How should we free ourselves from our birth into death if we had not been born again according to faith by a new birth generously given by God, thanks to that which came about from the Virgin’s womb?” (Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, IV, 33, 4).