Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11
The Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent (Matthew 24:36-44) began the new liturgical year at the End (with a capital E), with the expectation of Jesus’ final coming to us.
Advent 2 moved us back (chronologically speaking) to the expectation of Jesus’ coming in ministry in connection with John the Baptist (3:1-12). We stay with John the Baptist for Advent 3, but he is now in prison asking if Jesus is the one about whom he prophesied in our reading from last week.
The Revised Common Lectionary has done a poor job delineating the boundaries of this passage. The full scene comprises Matthew 11:2-19, with verses 12-14 key to Matthew’s understanding of John. Here we see that John concludes the old age, marking the transition to the new eschatological age that Jesus initiates. For Matthew, however, it is not that Jesus’ first coming was historical with his second coming being eschatological: the Christ event is an eschatological event that means the church is already living and always will live in the turning of the ages.
Another problem with the delineation of the passage is that the scene has two distinct parts. In the first section, John sends his disciples to ask if Jesus is the one who is coming and Jesus responds (Matthew 11:2-6). In the second section, John’s disciples have departed and Jesus discusses the importance of John with the crowd around him (verses 7-19). This second section is really an expansion of the characterization of John as Elijah, the forerunner of the messiah, as initiated in last week’s gospel reading (3:1-12).
Preachers will do well to focus on the first section of this passage and its christological emphasis. John’s question is an Advent question: “Are you the one who is coming or should we expect another?” (Matthew 11:3). Matthew captures the tension of the already/not yet by having John in prison ask whether Jesus (who is present) is the one to come (eschatological)! In Advent we paradoxically wait for the one who has already come.
Still, it is puzzling as to why John would need to ask this question given his role of Elijah and his recognition of Jesus and statement of unworthiness at Jesus’s baptism (Matthew 3:14). Preachers should avoid psychologizing John at this point. Had Matthew wanted to explain what he was feeling or thinking that led to the question, the narrator would have told us.
Preachers, however, have full license in psychologizing their congregations! And such psychologizing invites a simple homiletical structure. Preachers can use a “four page” form suggested by Paul Scott Wilson1:
- Page 1 describes the problem or bad news in the ancient text.
- Page 2 presents an analogous problem/bad news in the contemporary context.
- Page 3 transitions to the good news of divine action in the ancient text.
- Page 4 presents analogous good news in the contemporary context.
The first half of the sermon, therefore, would draw an analogy between John’s question (exegetically unpacked on Page 1) and ours (Page 2). What is it about us that leads us as faithful Christians to nevertheless doubt and/or miss out on Christ’s eschatological significance? What metaphorical “not yet” prisons lead us to question, explicitly or in terms of the way we live our lives, whether Jesus has initiated the “already” reign of God? Preachers will need to help their congregations “see” their prisons through various imagery.
The second half of the sermon, then, is connecting Jesus’s ancient answer (Page 3) to a contemporary vision of Christ’s continuing salvific work (Page 4).
Jesus’s answer is that John’s disciples can report back to John what they have seen and heard. (John cannot see and hear because of his imprisonment.) The focus of the answer is on the way that Jesus’ deeds (erga, Matthew 11:2) show him to be the eschatological one, whereas the readings associated with the birth narrative (which appear earlier in Matthew’s narrative but some of which will be read later in Christmastide) focus on messianic titles and geographical symbolism to unpack the author’s christology.
Jesus’ answer to John’s question both reflects deeds readers have already seen in the narrative (summaries of healings have already been noted in Matthew 4:24; 8:16; 9:35) and echoes language from Isaiah 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 42:7, 18; 61:1 (see also Matthew 8:17 where Matthew quotes Isaiah 53:4 to show that Jesus’ healings fulfill scripture).
This three-layered connection between Isaiah, the birth narrative, and this description of Jesus’ ministry presents Jesus as the center of salvation history: the one to come (in the future) is performing deeds (in the present) that fulfill prophetic expectations (of the past). This paradoxical tension between the past, present and future is tailor-made for an Advent sermon.
The sermon only works, however, if that dynamic is extended into the contemporary experience of the congregation on Page 4. Here preachers must invite their congregations to see and hear ways the ancient Christ who is also the one to come is at work in today’s world.
“Seeing and hearing” means the preacher must show/narrate Christ at work our contemporary context and not just declare it in some abstract manner. Certainly preachers of different theological orientations will do this differently, but the key is naming how Christ heals, offers life, and overcomes oppression in today’s world (even though there is still much “not yet” that justifies our asking the question in the first place).
1 Paul Scott Wilson, The Four Pages of the Sermon, Revised and Updated: A Guide to Biblical Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 2018).