Matthew 11 Study and Reflection (3)

“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.

Matthew 11 Study and Reflection (2)

Before I continue working on Matthew 11, I want to recommend a podcast to which I’ve subscribed. I’ve started listening to the Dangerous Dogma podcast, produced and distributed by the folks at Word and Way. I’ve enjoyed and appreciated all the pods I’ve heard so far. In particular I want to recommend Episode 99, “Jeremy Duncan on Upside-Down Apocalypse.” I’m pretty well set on doing a Revelation book study on Zoom this fall, and I think Duncan’s book will be good preparation for that, based on the podcast. I’m going to get the book to make sure, but I really appreciated what I heard on the pod. I hope you’ll check it out.

Now, on with our regularly scheduled programming.

Photo by cottonbro studio on

I have run across the work of professional Bible translator, Iver Larsen, a few times before and have always found his rigor and precision extremely helpful. To quote his bio: “Iver Larsen has an M.Sc. in Mathematics and Computer Science from the University of Aarhus in Denmark and an M.A. in Linguistics from the University of Nairobi in Kenya. He and his wife, Alice, joined SIL in 1977 and worked on the Sabaot language project in Kenya from 1981 to 1991. Since then (as of 1995), Iver has been translation consultant for Bible Translation and Literacy, the national Bible translation organization in Kenya.”

From the SIL International web site: “We are a global, faith-based nonprofit that works with local communities around the world to develop language solutions that expand possibilities for a better life. SIL’s core contribution areas are Bible translation, literacy, education, development, linguistic research and language tools. We are eager for the day when all people enjoy equal access to education, to socio-economic opportunities, and to resources for spiritual growth – no matter what language they speak or sign.”

Suffice it to say, Larsen is one smart cookie.

I am reading a couple of articles by Larsen in connection with Matthew 11:2-19. In particular he focuses on the “parable” in Matthew 11:16-19 and how to translate a few critical phrases. First, he looks at “parable introducers in Matthew.” The parables in Matthew 13 begin with “The kingdom of heaven is like…” and proceed with the parable. Larsen argues that the best translation for these “introducers” — that is, the one that removes ambiguity and preserves intended meaning — would be “The kingdom of God is like this story…”

This understanding of parable introducers can assist us with our interpretation of Matthew 11:2-19 and especially with verses 16-19. The theme of the passage is opposition both to John the Baptist and to Jesus. “But to what will I compare this generation?” asks Jesus, in the NRSV translation (Matthew 11:16a). Larsen argues that this question should be translated as “To what shall I liken such people?”

One of the problematic translations here is “this generation.” In a 1985/2001 article, Larsen deals with that phrase. First, he discusses the use of “this” (in Greek, houtos). In most cases, “this” refers to someone or something in the preceding context. The group to which the Matthean Jesus refers is the folks who have been described in this passage as opposing and/or rejecting John and Jesus. This is not a reference to some general population cohort defined by time of birth or historical setting.

The word translated as “generation” (Greek, genea) does not mean “all of the people born and living at about the same time, regarded collectively.” That’s the primary English meaning. Instead, Larsen argues that the word means “a class of people bound together through a common origin or with a common bond.” These two meanings are not equivalent, and they result in different interpretations of the text. This word shows up in several similar contexts in the Matthean account, so the extended treatment is worth the bother.

Nothing in the context would lead us to believe that Jesus is referring to people in a specified time in history. Instead, the reference is to the immediate context and should be translated as “such people as this.”

When we get to this point, we can do a better job of reading the rest of the text. Now we come back to Larsen’s later article. “To what shall I liken such people?” Jesus asks in Matthew 11:16. Unless we are careful, we will read the text as comparing the resistors and rejectors with the children in the marketplace. But that is precisely not the way we should read the text — at least if we want it to make any coherent sense.

In fact, the children in the marketplace are images of John the Baptist and Jesus. The comparison does not say “They are.” Instead, as Larsen points out (and as the NRSV translates), the text says “It is.” It should be clear that Jesus is not comparing the people to the children. Rather, he is comparing the situation of rejection to the image of the children in the marketplace. Larsen argues, “it seems clear that we have here another parable introducer the intent of which is not to identify the topic (“such people”) with the first participants mentioned in the story, but simply to illustrate what Jesus is saying about these people.”

Larsen goes on to argue that Jesus connects the resistors and rejectors to the second group of children in the simile. At that point he loses me. It seems to me that the real force of his argument is that the two groups of children represent John the Baptist and Jesus. That seems to be clear in the interpretation of the parable. John was no fun and was accused of being demon-possessed. Jesus was too much fun and was labeled a glutton and a drunkard. Neither funeral dirges nor dance tunes would satisfy the rejectors and resistors.

The ones who will flourish are those who get up and dance when Jesus starts playing. “And flourishing is the one who would not be scandalized by me” the Matthean Jesus says in 11:6 (my translation). It seems that Jesus is perhaps a Billy Joel fan. He’d rather “laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints.” The sinners, as Stanley Hauerwas notes, are not necessarily those who misbehave. Instead, they are the ones “who have no stake in the current regime” (Matthew, page 115).

“Those without power are ready to dance with Jesus as he plays the flute. They are ready to mourn with Jesus,” Hauerwas continues, “as he despairs over Israel’s unwillingness to repent. But those who sit in the marketplace, those who flourish in the everyday world of exchange,” he concludes, “can only think John the Baptist to be mad and Jesus to be immoral” (page 115).

As always, I am concerned that we will read such texts with an anti-Jewish focus. It is hard to strain out the inherent supersessionism of the last eighteen centuries. The only way I can find to deal with this is to turn the focus almost immediately upon me and upon the Church I inhabit. Gaslighting prophets and ridiculing innovators is pretty standard fare in established churches and traditions. We can ask ourselves how often we have missed the opportunities to lament or to boogie. How often have we been (and continue to be) the resistors and rejectors — the ones invested in keeping the marketplace quiet and stable?

Matthew 11 Study and Notes

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.