In Matthew 11, John the Baptist heard what Jesus was doing and sent his disciples to ask him: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
What sparks this question?
Matthew introduces John the Baptist earlier as the Elijah-like precursor to the Messiah (see Matthew 3:1-12).
He is pictured as an anti-establishment desert prophet, prophesying outside institutional religion and calling Israel to spiritual conversion and renewal.
He believes the kingdom of God is about to be realized through the Messianic mediator, who will immerse people in a fiery judgment when wheat and chaff will be separated.
John announces that the kingdom “has come near” in the person of the Messiah. The time is at hand.
“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (see Matthew 3:10). The righteous will be purified and the wicked consumed by the “unquenchable fire.”
When a number of Pharisees and Sadducees find their way out to the desert to be baptized by John, he screams: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
For John, the advent of the Messiah and the realization of the kingdom involved a baptism in the wrath of God. No wonder John is perplexed when Jesus, the Messiah, is not acting the part.
Jesus seems to be reading off a different script. Where’s the baptism by fire? Why hasn’t the ax brought the trees down? Where is “the wrath to come”?
Jesus displays no interest in separating the wheat and the chaff. John must have observed that Jesus’ works were clearly more about inclusion than exclusion when he invited and welcomed all manner of “chaff” to participate in an open table.
The messianic works delineated in response to John’s question (see Matthew 11:4-5) point to the core elements of the gracious gospel Jesus embodied and taught:
â— “The blind receive their sight” includes enlightenment and discernment
â— “The lame walk” includes healing, renewal and restoration
â— “The lepers are cleansed” includes forgiveness, inclusion and reconciliation
â— “The deaf hear” includes obedience, guidance and action
â— “The dead are raised” includes new life, conversion and transformation
â— “The poor have good news brought to them” includes liberation, social justice and equality
After Jesus enumerates these messianic works, he declares: “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:6).
John is being challenged to get rid of his old script and embrace a new one. He and his disciples stand to be “blessed” if they are open to “hear and see” by moving beyond their former way of thinking.
The same is true for us. Can we hear a fresh word? Can we see an alternative vision? Are we open to new possibilities?
Even though John’s expectations were off target, Jesus affirms John in Matthew 11:7-11a, which reveals that good people who do good work can completely miss what God is doing.
After praising John, Jesus says: “Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11b). It’s a riddle, I think, meant to evoke thought.
I read it to mean that the one who embraces Jesus’ vision of the kingdom (reflected in the works he accomplished and the life he lived) will find oneself in a “greater” place of opportunity to participate in the work of the kingdom than even the greatest of the prophets.
I would like to think that Jesus’ words, while shattering John’s old paradigm, ignited a new vision and hope.
Thankfully, John didn’t give up all hope and give in to disillusionment and despair. Though bewildered, he asked the question, and I want to believe that he lived into it.
How we understand God is always shaped by pressures from and influences of our time and culture, and questions are the source of spiritual vitality and liberation.
A nightly news show periodically features a clip called “debunktion junction,” where some popular political notions are debunked.
Maybe we need to do the same with some of our religious certitudes by asking weightier and more honest questions.
Thomas Merton said it well: “In the progress toward religious understanding, one does not go from answer to answer but from question to question. One’s questions are answered, not by clear, definitive answers, but by more pertinent and more crucial questions.”
Questions help to dismantle our pride, clear away our certitudes and open a place for humility to take root and grow. Questions create the space needed “to hear and see” what new thing God may want to tell and show us.
Chuck Queen is pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Frankfort, Ky. A longer version of this column first appeared on his blog, A Fresh Perspective, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @KentuckaChuck.