“And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:6, NRSV). I want to think through that verse in more detail. First, I’d like to suggest a different translation. “The one,” Jesus declares to John’s followers, “who is not tripped up by me will flourish.”
The verb is skandalizo. The literal image is that of a stumbling block, something that causes one to trip and fall. Generally, the image is not neutral but rather is negative. It’s often connected with a trap of some kind, whether literal or figurative. Therefore, the verb can refer to causing one to sin. The middle/passive form can be translated as to be repelled by or offended by someone. It can be translated as “to take offense,” as is the case in the NRSV.
Obviously, I don’t find the NRSV translation all that compelling. The sentence concludes Jesus’ response to John’s followers. From the context, it doesn’t seem that John is offended by Jesus’ actions. Instead, he is tripped up by them, confused by them, disoriented by them. It may be that John is trapped or offended as a result, but that translation is more interpretive than is necessary.
Figure out a way, Jesus seems to say, to take me in stride. That English metaphor works well here, I think. In the cluster of walking and tripping images, Jesus can trip us up by violating and disappointing our expectations. The challenge, then, is to adjust those expectations. And that’s what this section of the Matthean account is all about.
John expected eschatological fireworks but got a compassionate Messiah. Those who went out to see John in the wilderness expected another prophet. Instead, they got Elijah, the culmination of the prophets and the forerunner of the Messiah. The people in the marketplace of spiritual options got a stern John and a laughing Jesus. Neither one measured up to their preconceptions. The Galilean cities expected to enjoy geographical privilege. Instead, they will fare worse than the worst Gentile cities.
The chapter is filled with tripping over our expectations of Jesus and falling flat on our faces. It’s worth thinking about how that continues to happen for Jesus followers in the here and now. The most visible expression of tripping and falling certainly is the current movement known as Christian nationalism. The Jesus they expect is not the Jesus they get in Scripture. So, they manufacture a Jesus more to their liking.
Those who do get tripped up are treated to a funeral dirge from Jesus. That’s what we get in Matthew 11:20-24. I suspect that Jesus sadly consigns Christian Nationalism to the same category as Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.
In Matthew 11:7-15, we get the Matthean version of the salvation history outline. Larsen, among others, helps to make some sense of what we read in those verses. The Baptist is the greatest of the prophets of Israel. That is, John is the climactic member of the prophetic line. We get a quotation of Malachi 3:1, the beginning of the end of the Old Testament. At least, that’s how Christians receive the text from the Septuagint.
Thus, the Baptist is the boundary and bridge between the age of the prophets and the age of the Church, at least in Matthean terms. The contrast is between two eras. As Larsen notes, it doesn’t make sense to suggest that John was not in the Kingdom of God. Instead, he was the greatest of those looking forward to the coming of the Kingdom. But “even the most insignificant person who has experienced new life in Jesus has something far greater than the greatest of the old prophets.”
How shall we read Matthew 11:12, since there is some ambiguity in the words to be translated? We could read it to say that the kingdom has, during the time of John, “made its way with triumphant force.” However, John’s incarceration gives the lie to that possibility. Instead, Larsen translates it like this. “From the time when John the Baptist started to preach and even now the kingdom of God has been violently opposed, and the opponents are trying to get rid of it.”
That certainly fits with the responses that John and Jesus have generated so far in the Matthean account. It’s interesting that the Matthean Jesus sees messianic prophecy prior to John in “all the prophets and the law.” That’s an unusual inversion of the typical phrasing, “the Law and the Prophets.”
Perhaps the Matthean author wants to make sure that we read the Torah through the lens of the prophets and not the other way around. This makes sense out of the Matthean use of the prophets and Torah. We read the prophets (including John) through the lens of Jesus. We read further back by seeing the Torah through the lens of the prophets (as does Jesus).
Fulfillment of those text then means that they have prefigured Jesus and are now complete in him. Thus we read Malachi 3:1, for example, and hear the words of Exodus 23:20 behind it. And both of those texts find their fulfillment in John as the messenger, the forerunner, the way-maker. As Stanley Hauerwas puts it, “John is Elijah because Jesus is the Messiah” (Matthew, page 115).
We can see in vv. 13 and 14 that this reading produced violent responses. It was not “accepted.” This is the word that can be translated as “welcomed.” Jesus calls the crowd to welcome the idea that John really is Elijah, as described in Malachi 4. The question in the text is whether they will or not. The one who welcomes a disciple welcomes Jesus. And the one who welcomes Jesus welcomes the one who sent Jesus.