Monday, December 16, 2013

A Disappointing Messiah

John the baptizer in the wilderness

John sent word by his disciples and asked Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”[1]  For John the baptizer, Jesus was turning out to be a disappointing Messiah.  Apparently, the news of what Jesus was doing gave him pause.  He was beginning to wonder if maybe he had made a mistake pinning his hopes on Jesus.  

Is Jesus the one you’ve been waiting for?  Maybe, like John, you have your doubts too.  It may not seem like Jesus has made much of a difference in your life, much less the world.  I guess it all depends on our expectations.  Just what is it that we expect the Messiah to do?

Jesus clearly was not fulfilling John’s expectations.  Remember John from last week’s Gospel reading.  He rejects the Jerusalem Temple system and its ruling elites, calling them snakes and warning them of the wrath to come.   He is a fiery, populist preacher, baptizing in the wilderness, creating a purified people ready to meet the Messiah.  This Messiah will come with his winnowing fork in his hand, “and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”[2]

Drawing on the vision of the prophet Isaiah, John imagines God’s Messiah coming to liberate and restore Israel, judging and punishing her enemies.  For John, the enemy is the Roman Empire and the Jewish aristocrats who collaborate with Roman rule.  Sorting out the good guys from the bad guys and punishing the wicked is what the Messiah is supposed to do.  That is how the world is made right again. 

Now, rather than dismiss John’s expectations as the apocalyptic excesses of a wild-eyed fanatic, I believe John expresses the legitimate hopes of oppressed people everywhere.  Even more, he represents a very mainstream view that, in the face of manifest evil, justice and order can only be maintained by counter-violence.  In fact, God is invoked as the justification of violence against the wicked, as the source of power whereby the wicked are overcome and punished here and now. 

“Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you."
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.[3]

John’s hope for the Messiah is the hope for one great, big final violent act on behalf of God to end violence once and for all.  Then, and only then, will there be peace on earth.  John is waiting for a war to end all war, a war on terror to rid the world of evil.  In his conviction that we just cannot make do without violence, are we so different from John? 

Well, if that is the Messiah’s job description, we had better start interviewing some candidates other than Jesus.  Jesus offers an entirely different kind of hope, one that may seem a little scandalous. 

Jesus responds to John’s questions with a pastiche of images also drawn from Isaiah’s vision:  "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."[4]
Notice what Jesus leaves out: no purifying flames, no winnowing fork, and no proclamation of divine vengeance.  Jesus refuses to become a Davidic warrior-king.  His rag-tag following of the sick, the poor, and the outcast is no rebel army.  He is no threat to his enemies.  John is focused on moral purity and revenge.  Jesus is focused on healing and forgiveness.[5]

Both John and Jesus desire human liberation and healing.  They draw on the same prophetic vision of renewal for the whole earth – not just human beings – but their understandings of how that promise will be kept could not be more different.  This is why Jesus blesses those who are not scandalized by his way of being Messiah.  He knows he is bound to disappoint those who are expecting a quick – and violent – fix. 

After John’s disciples leave, Jesus asks the crowds a rhetorical question:  What did they come out to the wilderness to see?  His reference to a reed shaken by the wind and someone dressed in royal robes is an allusion to King Herod (the coins minted by Herod pictured a reed blowing in the wind).[6]  John is in prison ostensibly because he criticized Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, Herodias, more likely because his apocalyptic movement was perceived as a threat.   That is why John is eventually executed.

But, of course, the crowds came out to the wilderness to see John, not Herod. Perhaps the crowd is fascinated by the conflict between John and Herod, curious to see whose side Jesus will take in this rivalry. John, according to Jesus, is a great prophet, the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prediction of a messenger who would prepare the way for the Messiah.  In this, he is greater than any human being heretofore; and yet, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John. 

And then Jesus says something very revealing, which was not included in today’s Gospel reading:  From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!”[7]

God is not the source of violence.  Those who belong to God’s kingdom suffer violence.   This is the scandal of Jesus, the offense that makes him a disappointing Messiah.   He will suffer being made a victim in solidarity with victims, but he refuses to reciprocate by making victims of his enemies.  His death is a scandal to those who are convinced that only violence can overcome violence. 

This is the problem for John, whom Jesus compares to the Old Testament prophet Elijah.  As Andrew Marr observes,

John was locked in precisely the same relationship with Herod and Herodias as Elijah was with Ahab and Jezebel. In both cases, we have a prophet deadlocked with a royal couple in what can only be called a stalemate. That is to say, in each case, the prophet has become a mimetic double of his royal enemy. In such a situation, it does not matter who "wins" because as long as one is trying to "win," then God and God's people lose. One might be edified by Elijah's protest against the sacrificial cult of Baal which was taking the lives of countless children. However, Elijah's slaying all the prophets of Baal hardly changes things for the better. He has solved one problem of victimization by making victims of others. As long as the prophets, for all their zeal and righteousness, struggle with abusive authority in a mimetic way and create further victims, as did Elijah, then no fundamental change has taken place. God's kingdom is still subject to violence and, no matter who wins, a violent contestant in the winner. [8]

The prophetic tradition culminating in John the Baptist only brings us so far toward the kingdom of God.  That tradition understands God’s desire for the renewal of the world, but it us unable to salvage that vision from the wreckage of the cycle of violence that God’s kingdom suffers.  This is the real scandal from which we need to be delivered:  the scandal of making victims of one another.

James Alison writes, “There is only one way not to be locked into the scandals of this world, and that is by learning to forgive, which means not allowing oneself to be defined by the evil done.”[9]  This is the message of the Crucified Messiah: Blessed are those who are not scandalized by the risk and promise of forgiveness.  It is the only way to new life beyond the death we mete out by making victims of each other.

When Nelson Mandela emerged from his jail cell to become the President of South Africa, he included his jailers in his inauguration ceremony.  President Bill Clinton asked him, “Didn’t you hate them?” Mandela said,Yes, but I realized if I hated them I was still their prisoner, and I wanted to be free.”[10] 

Our Messiah comes to us as the Forgiving Victim, not the Vengeful Warrior. Jesus does not bring an end to evil and suffering in one fell swoop.  Instead, he patiently inducts us into a way of life that invites us, in imitation of him, to accept our vulnerability, forgive our enemies, and create a reconciling community of healing love.

This Messiah brings no quick fixes, no smug sense of superiority over "those people," no opportunity to make anyone else – not even God, certainly not our enemies – responsible for our choices.  This Messiah has come.  And yet, we are still waiting – or, better, he is waiting for us – to fulfill the promise of his coming.  Is Jesus a disappointing Messiah?  Maybe.  Sometimes.  In those dark moments when I just wish someone would make all the bad stuff go away.   Still, I think Jesus really is what we’ve all been waiting for: the gracious mirror in which we might see reflected the true image of ourselves; of the people we are meant to be.  And so this season we sing again,

“O, come Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind, bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our King of Peace.”[11]

[1] Matthew 11:2-3.
[2] Matthew 3:1-12.
[3] Isaiah 35:4-6.
[4] Matthew 11:4-6; cf. Isaiah 26:19, 29:18-19, 35:5-6, 42:18, 61:1.
[5] Andrew Marr, OSB, “The Least in the Kingdom of Heaven:  A Look at John the Baptist and Jesus” at
[6] Ben Witherington, “Commentary on Matthew 11:2-11” at
[7] Matthew 11:12-15.
[8] Marr, op. cit.
[9] James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong:  Original Sin Thorough Easter Eyes (New York:  Cross Road Publishing Company, 1998), p. 144.
[10] Nancy Rockwell, “Forerunners” at
[11] “O come, O come, Emmanuel”, number 56 in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Publishing Inc.).

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