The Problem with John

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

Do you even wonder if John the Baptist made the first Christians as uncomfortable as he does us? I suspect that from their point of view, John was, in some ways, a little too much like Jesus for comfort. After all, he, too, attracted crowds and disciples. He, too, provoked the religious authorities. He, too, is eventually killed by the ruling authorities. And if all that’s not enough, he’s the one to baptize Jesus, kind of like a mighty teacher might do to a follower. Talk about awkward! Yes, I suspect that John made the first Christians just as uncomfortable as he does us.

Maybe that’s why none of the four evangelists seems to know quite what to do with him. He’s obviously too important a figure in their collective memories to leave out, yet each of them struggle to make John fit the larger story of Jesus they are telling. John is the most unabashed of the four, having John twice confess — or is it un-confess? — that he isn’t the Messiah (just in case anyone was confused, I suppose). Luke, for his part, is the most creative, naming John as Jesus’ cousin and having him give testimony to his younger and superior relative even from the womb. Mark, as brief as ever, simply claims John as the fulfillment of prophecy, the one who heralded the coming Messiah. But for all that, I have to admit that it’s Matthew who intrigues me most, as Matthew seems almost to openly dislike John.

Take Matthew’s description of John’s encounter with the Pharisees. Goodness gracious, but he’s harsh. Which makes you wonder: Is Matthew simply trying to make Jesus look better by contrast? You know, have John give ’em hell so that Jesus seems oh so much more gentle and kind by comparison? Tempting interpretation, but I don’t think so, as Matthew’s Jesus is just as fierce, if not more so, later in the story (Mt. 23:1-36).

Actually, when you come to it, Matthew’s characterization of John’s preaching in general is notably severe. It is, quite frankly, unrelenting fire and brimstone. True, Luke offers much the same, though Luke’s John at least gives the people some hope, inviting them to offer what little they have in response to his call to repentance. No such olive branch in Matthew. It’s repentance, threat, repeat, for the whole nine yards.

In fact, Matthew gives not one glimmer of grace in John’s preaching. Oh, I know, some would characterize the preaching of repentance and the invitation to “turn around” as an act of grace. I’m having none of it. I mean, Matthew doesn’t even mention forgiveness in connection with John. By comparison, Mark and Luke both describe John as proclaiming “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk. 1:4; Lk. 3:3). Not so Matthew, who only records John’s terse sermon as, “Repent!” (1:2). No forgiveness, nothing, nada.

But maybe that’s Matthew’s point all along. Maybe it’s not that Matthew doesn’t like John, maybe he just wants to be clear about who and what John is — the forerunner, the one who points to Christ, the one who not only calls our attention to him but creates in us a hunger for him. Don’t look to John for forgiveness, Matthew seems to implore, because you won’t find it.

Indeed. Later in Matthew’s story of Jesus there is another scene where he again varies from the script. It’s the Last Supper, where Jesus, gathered with his friends, shares himself as fully and completely as he can. Lifting a loaf of bread, Jesus says, “Take and eat. This is my body.” And then, offering them a cup, he tells them to drink, explaining, “This is my blood of the covenant, poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” And there it is. Right there. Did you catch it? In Mark, Luke, and Paul (1 Cor. 11), there is no mention of “the forgiveness of sins.” Matthew, it seems, has added the phrase he omitted from his description of John’s preaching and placed it right here, at the climax of the Supper.

No. It’s not that Matthew doesn’t like John. It’s that Matthew believes John only has half the story. Repentance, remorse, turning back, longing for restoration, is an important word, one that John sounds and Jesus in time also picks up. But it all comes to nothing if there isn’t the promise of forgiveness at the end, and for that promise, according to Matthew, we have to look to Jesus.

Not a bad sermon as we enter more deeply into Advent, Working Preaching. Waiting, watching, preparing, repenting. These may, like John himself, be uncomfortable things in our 24/7, instant access world. Yet they are also good and important things, which is what the Baptizer ultimately tells us. But Matthew’s rending of the story, I think, raises an important question: for what do we wait, and watch, and prepare? And where do we find the courage and hope to repent? For Matthew, the matter is clear: it is Jesus, always and only Jesus, the one who judges in order to forgive, accuses in order to justify, gives law in order to show grace, and dies that we might have life. Matthew, faithful Christian scribe that he is, loves the law and sees in it the clearest indication of God’s will for us. Yet Jesus is not just the fulfiller of the law, for Matthew, he is also its fulfillment. For in Jesus God’s love is made manifest so that those things that John, Isaiah, Elijah, and all the law and prophets pointed to finally become clear.

Thanks be to God, Working Preacher, for this good news, for this promise, for this season of waiting and watching, and for you and your faithful proclamation.

Yours in Christ,