Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11
While in the Matthean lection for the second Sunday in Advent, we hear about John’s testimony to Jesus, in this lection for the third Sunday in Advent we hear about Jesus’ testimony to John (see verse 11).
Actually this lection should include Matthew 11:12-15 as well, which is the rest of Jesus’ testimony to John, and in terms of contextual exegesis, it is important that verse 11 be interpreted together with verse 12-15. There is heavy irony in this passage because while Jesus is praising John to the sky in this text (“the greatest man ever born of woman”), John is expressing doubts about who Jesus might be. The question is what had prompted the question–“are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” What John seems to have not yet understood is that Jesus did not come to meet our expectations as to what a messiah or savior ought to do and be, he came to meet our needs.
In the first place, Jesus did not come simply repeating John’s warning of looming judgment on God’s people; he came proclaiming the inbreaking Dominion and salvation of God, even for the least, the last, and the lost. In the second place, Jesus did not take up the mantle and lifestyle of an ascetical prophet, like John had done. Jesus ate and drank with sinners and tax collectors, and refused to take on himself the clothing and demeanor of one who was in mourning. In the third place, Jesus did not assume the roles of a Davidic warrior king or ruler. Indeed, he preached non-resistance, turning the other cheek, and self-sacrificial love. Furthermore, Jesus did not march on Jerusalem nor did he thunder condemnation on Caesar or his legions. Some, or all, of this must have been confusing to John, hence the question. John is not portrayed in this particular text, which comes from near the end of John’s life as a follower of Jesus, but rather one who himself has disciples, and has doubts about Jesus.
Jesus’ response to the question, found in Matthew 11:4-6, involves an affirmation that he was fulfilling a different set of Scriptures. For example, consider Isaiah 61:1-2. Jesus proclaims something unprecedented was happening–even the blind were receiving their sight, a miracle nowhere recorded in the Old Testament nor predicated of any previous Biblical prophet. Jesus points to his miracles and adds as well that the poor, through his preaching hear and experience Good News. So Jesus concludes by saying “blessed are those who take no offense at me.” Jesus would live out the messianic script playing by his own rules and fulfilling the Scriptures which motivated him and his ministry, not some preconceived notion of what a messiah must do and be.
Jesus’ testimony to John in verses 7-15 is remarkable and includes the following elements: 1) an affirmation that John is not merely a prophet, but the prophet foretold in Isaiah, who is the messenger who goes before and prepares the way for the Coming One. He is not merely the forerunner, he is the ground breaker and the preparer of the way; 2) yet, verse 11 indicates John is not yet in the Dominion of God, for Jesus says “yet the least in the Kingdom is greater than he”; 3) verses 7-8 are interesting because John is being contrasted with some royal figure in a palace, in fact probably Herod Antipas, the ruler who had taken him captive. John did not wear royal robes like Herod, and interestingly, the coins minted by Herod feature a reed blowing in the wind. 4) then in verses 13-15 Jesus suggests the line of the Old Testament prophets ends with or just before John, and that the times had been tumultuous since John came on the scene with the violent trying to take the Kingdom by force, or even doing violence against the Kingdom’s messengers–namely John and later Jesus.
The undercurrent of the entire text is the difference between people’s expectations, even John’s, and the reality of who Jesus was and the actual character of his ministry.