I will be reading and preaching on Matthew 11 for the next few weeks. The pattern in the Matthean account reflects the schema outlined at the end of the Sermon on the Mount (SOM). “Therefore, every one who hears these words of mine and does them,” the Matthean Jesus declares, “can be likened to a wise person who built their house upon a stone foundation” (Matthew 7:24, my translation).
We hear each of the five discourses in the Matthean account. Then we get stories about “doing” those discourses. And we are called to reflect on how the hearing and doing will continue in our lives as disciples.
Matthew 10 is the second of the five discourses — the Discipleship Discourse (DD). Chapters eleven and twelve tell stories about responses to the DD. Matthew 11:1 is really the conclusion to the DD. It has the formula the Matthean author uses at the end of the teaching sections — “And when Jesus finished directing his twelve disciples, he passed over from there to teach and proclaim in all their cities” (my translation).
Sometimes I think that Jesus spent a whole chapter equipping the twelve disciples to go and do, and then they…don’t. But I’m not sure that’s the case in narrative terms. The Matthean Jesus goes on to teach and proclaim in their (Galilean) cities. There’s no reason to think the disciples stay with him at that point. It’s as likely in narrative terms that they go out and put the teaching to work.
The disciples are mentioned directly only once in Matthew 11 and 12, at the beginning of chapter 12 with the Sabbath controversy. Perhaps the implied pattern was for disciples to go out and work during the week and to come together for Sabbath practice and reflection. That would be an interesting implied model for the Matthean community and for other readers of the text. I lean toward that understanding at this point.
The first response comes from John the Baptist. We’ve not heard from John since his preaching and baptizing in chapter 3. In that proclamation, John spoke with great conviction about the one who was to come after him. And it was clear in the narrative that Jesus was this Coming One. It was also clear in the Matthean account that John understood this. But now things have changed.
John has poked the bear — Herod Antipas, newly married to his brother’s wife and guilty of numerous public sins. As a result of John’s public criticism, Herod tosses John into the Black Fortress dungeons at Machaerus, near the Dead Sea. This is the textbook description of being “out of the loop.”
John gets reports about what the Messiah is doing. The Matthean author inserts that messianic mention. The Lukan author refers to the Lord, or the Lord Jesus, depending on the manuscript. So, the Matthean author winks to us in the audience as people in the know. John may be unclear about who Jesus is and what he’s doing, but we aren’t.
John’s question evidences doubts about his own previous declaration. “Are you the Coming One? Or should we expect someone else?” What has changed is that John is sitting in prison, with the likelihood of his death hanging over him. The eschatological fireworks display has not yet begun. John wants to know why the delay is happening. Is he going to see the beginning of the End or not?
In the Revised Common Lectionary, Matthew 11:2-11 is paired with Isaiah 35:1-10. With good reason. The Matthean Jesus points to Isaiah 35:5-6 (indirectly) as evidence that he is doing the work of the Messiah. This chapter of Isaiah is a post-exilic text that describes the return from Babylon. Creation shall be restored. God will come to set things right. Human suffering shall be healed, and droughts shall end.
“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10, NRSV).
By the first century CE, Isaiah 35 was established as a messianic predictive and descriptive text. The Matthean Jesus uses and enacts the text to describe the kind of Messiah he is and intends to be. This is not what John expected, perhaps. But this is not outside the bounds of the hopes of Israel.
Lisa Bowens discusses the role of John the Baptist in the Matthean account as a type of disciple. This certainly makes sense in terms of the location of our little story in the Matthean schema. On the one hand, John the Baptist exemplifies the kind of disciple Jesus describes in Matthew 10. We can notice his lifestyle choices and his focus on the coming kingdom. In addition, John will be “handed over” to death, just like Jesus and his disciples.
In addition, John has heard what Jesus is doing and now needs to figure out how to respond. This is in contrast, as Bowens points out, to the Lukan account. There, John’s followers witness the actual deeds of Jesus and bring that report to John. The schema in Matthew is hearing and doing (my argument, not Bowens’).
Bowens points to John’s previous certainty and current uncertainty. She suggests that the reader (hearer) will wonder. What has caused the change in John’s level of conviction? It may well be the fact of suffering during the “delay.” It may be that John’s situation prefigures the experience of some members of the Matthean community.
“John’s uncertainty signifies that in moments of crisis and unfulfilled expectations,” Bowens writes, “one may question an earlier confession of faith” pages 315-316). Some members of the Matthean community may have wondered if this wavering meant they were no longer disciples. John’s story can assure them that this may be part of the journey.
Bowens writes that “wavering faith does not disqualify one from following Christ” in the Matthean account. That happens to disciples — even to John the Baptist. “Furthermore,” she argues, “discipleship does not mean that one never questions God while on the journey, but that in the midst of the questions — even in spite of the answers — one continues to follow” (page 316).
The evidence Jesus offers, paradoxically, is precisely what has caused John to question. Instead of eschatological fireworks, Jesus brings healing and humility, grace and good news. Part of John’s journey in following Jesus means adjusting his expectations of the Messiah. That’s a powerful word for disciples in the Matthean community and at any time.
Does John “get it”? We don’t know that from the narrative. Perhaps that’s part of the point for the Matthean author. John is executed. Jesus is crucified. Disciples are persecuted. And in the midst of that, disciples know and confess that Jesus is indeed “the Coming One.”
The paragraph ends with a makarism — “And blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me” (Matthew 11:6, my translation). That’s clearly a word to John and an aside to the Matthean hearers and readers. Flourishing as followers of Jesus means welcoming the word and deed of the cross. That challenge has not abated in two millennia.