A Provocation: Third Sunday of Advent: Matthew 11:2-11: December 11, 2016

Matthew 11:2-11

11:2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples

11:3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

11:4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:

11:5 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.

11:6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

11:7 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?

11:8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.

11:9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.

11:10 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.’

11:11 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.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does John have to ask whether Jesus is the “coming one”?
  • Do you think that Jesus’ response convinced him?

Some Longer Reflections:

Are you the coming one, or are we to look for a different sort of messiah?

It is a simple question.  It reveals an important characteristic of Jewish faith, one that we ought to pause over and reflect.  “Are you the coming one?,” John’s disciples ask.  First of all, notice that when they ask, they do not need to specify exactly who it is that they are talking about.  They assume that “the coming one” will make sense to anyone worth asking about this “coming one.”  But notice, second, that they have to ask.  It is not obvious.

There appears to be an expectancy that is shared by Jews in this narrative world, an expectancy so intense that the disciples can ask about “THE coming one.”  But there is also revealed either a diffuse notion of what this coming one” might do, or a notable lack of fit between the one expected and Jesus.  Either way, they have to ask.

And either way, they consider it to be worth their time to ask.  It matters that there is someone coming.  So they ask.

But their question has a sharp edge.

They finish be asking whether they ought perhaps wait for an entirely different sort (ἕτερον) of candidate.  The word ἕτερον is important.  it means that the question of Jesus’ suitability is open to question.  Or it means that the expectancy is so intense that it is open to a variety of fulfilments.  The spectrum is so wide that the successful candidate could be entirely different from Jesus and still be the “coming one.”

Christians often imagine that it is the “coming one” who is most important in this scene.

We imagine that because we are committed to Jesus, whom we confess as the Christ and claim as the “coming one.”  This is understandable, and probably even helpful.  At least sometimes.

But I would suggest that it is the waiting, the expectancy, that is more important.  I would suggest that the wideness of the spectrum of expectation supports my contention.  All sorts of characters might turn out to be the one who is coming.  There is no particular focus, there is real diversity and multiplicity.  “Are you the ‘coming one,’ or ought we to look for a very different sort of person?”

But in the face of all this multiplicity, still the expectancy is united.  The community is on edge and waiting, this though they do not have single, simple ideas about whom to expect.  The community of faith is convinced that the state of the world requires God to respond.  This foundational understanding validates the experience of every sufferer, every person who is pushed out of what should be rightfully theirs.

This solid expectancy provides a critical analytic for Jewish faith.

This is not the way the world ought to be.  The community is certain of this, and this certainty fosters a commitment to justice and to change.  That is what the community expects, even if it cannot specify narrowly who it might be who will bring this change.

Notice Jesus’ response to John’s disciples.

He directs their attention to his own acts of healing and proclaiming.

On the one hand, he is only one person, and he has healed only a few people out of the burgeoning masses of humanity.  I suppose we could read this as a downpayment on the complete fulfilment of God’s promises of justice.  Perhaps we are meant to read it that way.

But as I read this scene this time, this year, this Advent, what I notice is that Jesus points to his acts that remove impediments for people who have been, because of disease or disability or other lack, been unable to contribute to the larger community.

Those who were blind (in the ancient world), or lame, or deaf would have been unable to help with the work of the community.  They would have most likely lived by begging.  On the one hand, every human community will always have members who need the support of the rest of the community.  When I was a child, my parents protected me and provided for me.  When my parents were in their 90s, they needed the protection and provision supplied by my sister and me (along with the rest of the community we helped to create).  Life together will always be like this.

But the people to whom Jesus points in this scene would, most likely, always have been recipients of help; they would have been “the needy.”  They would seldom, if ever, have been the helpers.  This imbalance is what Jesus has healed.

I would suggest that it is this healing of community that gives evidence that Jesus is the coming one.

If we imagine that our faith requires us to wait for a fictional moment when, finally, everything will be perfect, we will wait, uselessly, forever.  This little scene shifts our attention, I think, to a more productive kind of waiting.  The “coming one” makes it possible for all of us to bear each other’s burdens, to supply each other’s needs, to strengthen and support each other in turn, as we need strengthening and supporting.

That seems to me to be a better kind of Advent expectancy.

We are not enjoined to wait, hands folded, for the end of the world.  We are stirred to wait, with all our might, for the empowering of community.

Joe Hill, a union organizer you might have met in an old Joan Baez song, wrote a song called “The Preacher and the Slave.”  In this fascinating old complaint he satirized the kind of useless waiting that has too often characterized a religious response to the imbalances of society.  One of the choruses goes as follows:

You will eat, bye and bye

In that glorious land above the sky

Work and pray, live on hay

You’ll get pie in the sky when you die

He often inserted the line “It’s a lie” at the end.

He was right.

If Advent trains us to sit quietly while rights are abused and supports are kicked away from other members of our community, we are living a lie and we are betraying the community of faith that gave us birth, that taught us to wait for a “coming one.”

Maybe this Advent our task is to learn to wait more vigorously, more impatiently, more urgently.  Maybe our task is to work for ways that make all of us able to contribute to the balancing of our community.

That might require us to think about our life together differently.


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