Read the passage here.
As we begin this section, it’s worth reminding ourselves of a couple of features of Matthew. Namely, that Matthew is writing to a largely Jewish audience. And that his goal in addressing this Jewish audience is to show that Jesus is, in fact, the promised Messiah. In short, the Israelites understood themselves as the chosen people of God, blessed to be a blessing. But because of their repeated disobedience, they found themselves removed from their land and deprived of their nationhood. After hundreds of years of exile and occupation, they find themselves waiting for deliverance from the promised Messiah. We’ve talked at length about the Messiah that was expected, so we won’t say much about this, except to say that, during the time of Jesus, many were wondering if He was this Messiah – but especially after his death, many people wrote him off. Matthew is writing to demonstrate to people that, despite their doubts, Jesus is in fact the Messiah. And as we’ve seen, one of the reasons that people didn’t recognize Him is that He was proclaiming and inaugurating a different kind of kingdom than people expected or wanted.
Our passage today has three interrelated movements:
- John’s inquiry: Is Jesus the Messiah?
- Jesus’ affirmation of John’s ministry
- Jesus’ evaluation of those who rejected both John’s and Jesus’ ministries.
Beginning with the first movement – John’s inquiry – we see that John is in prison when he sends his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he was the Messiah. What we know about John the Baptist in the book of Matthew, from Matthew 3, is that John’s role is to announce, and prepare people for, the coming of the Messiah. In Matthew 3:13-14, when Jesus comes to John to be baptized, John says:
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”Matthew 3:13-14
It seems fairly obvious that John, at that point, recognizes Jesus to be the Messiah. So what happened? It seems like John is expressing doubt now. Why is that?
There’s a certain amount of speculation here – we don’t know exactly what’s going through John’s mind. But here we can get some help from the commentators. It’s worth noting that John the Baptist always seems to be introduced to us in the context of Isaiah 40:3. He is…
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,Isaiah 40:3
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
That is to say, using Isaiah as a reference, John the Baptist is identified as the one who will announce and prepare the way for the Messiah.
We know that the book of Isaiah has much to say about the promised Messiah who will restore the kingdom of Israel, though we’re not looking at this in depth. But in the gospel of Luke, we get a story that’s not included in Matthew’s gospel.
Jesus, after the testing in the wilderness, goes to the synagogue to read from the scroll of Isaiah. The passage that Jesus reads from is Isaiah 61. Jesus reads:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,Luke 4:18-19
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
This is, from Jesus, a proclamation that he himself is the fulfilment of this Isaianic prophecy – it’s essentially a claim that He is the one promised to Israel.
So when John the Baptist asks if Jesus is the one they should expect – the promised Messiah, Jesus responds by saying:
4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”Matthew 11:4-6
Now there are a number of passages from Isaiah that talk about what the Messiah will do. But the reason we pay attention to Isaiah 61 – and indeed, John may have had something like this in mind – is that in Jesus’ ministry, we have indeed seen the blind receive sight, the lame walking, lepers cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead raised, and good news proclaimed to the poor. Jesus seems to be fulfilling the Isaianic expectations of the Messiah.
But, notably, John is still in prison. “Freedom for the prisoners” is not something that he is personally seeing. He may be asking the question because, quite simply, he isn’t seeing the fulfillment of the kingdom in his own life. He may be doubting Jesus is the messiah because his expectations haven’t been fulfilled.
Now I don’t want to paint John in too bad of a light. I suspect, though I couldn’t prove it, that Matthew relates this story not to tell us something about John (so much), but rather to say something to the Israelites who are doubting Jesus, both in Jesus’ time and in the time that Matthew is writing. And, of course, it should say something to us. Which leads us to the next movement in our passage: Jesus’ affirmation of John.
Proceeding to the second movement, we see that Jesus seems to say that John’s ministry is the culmination of the line of prophets, that is, those prophets who prophesied that God was indeed working in and through Israel and that God’s work would culminate in Jesus. Focusing our attention on verses 7-10:
7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. 9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written:
“‘I will send my messenger ahead of you,Matthew 11:7-10
who will prepare your way before you.’
Here, Jesus seems to be saying something along the lines of, you didn’t follow John, you didn’t get baptized by John, because he was a polished, fancy, impressive religious figure. Rather, you went to John precisely because he was a prophet. And he was even a greater prophet than you knew. Because he was the culmination of the line of prophets. In other words, you went to John because he was sent from God.
Now this (that is, John, sent from God, as the greatest among prophets) is important as we consider what’s happening in the third movement of our passage.
16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”Matthew 11:16-19
Essentially, what Jesus is saying that, even though you thought John was a prophet, he wasn’t good enough for these people. John and his disciples were well-known for their ascetic lifestyle – choosing to live sparsely, demonstrating their desire to seek God only (i.e. not worldly things). In some ways, John was exactly what people thought of as a holy person.
Some people also thought Jesus might be a prophet – maybe even the Messiah. They saw his miracles and signs, heard his words, and thought He might be sent from God. But Jesus was also well-known for eating and drinking with sinners, for not obeying the Pharisaic rules (about the sabbath, for example), and for talking with women and having them as disciples. Jesus presented an entirely different picture of a holy person. But he wasn’t good enough for many people either.
Hence, Jesus’ condemnation that this generation is like children in the marketplace. It’s not clear – or at least, I couldn’t find – where this saying comes from. But if the unbelieving generation is like the children in the marketplace, it seems like they are making demands of others to play and mourn according to their whims.
It’s as if the Israelites are saying to every prospective prophet, every supposed Messiah – and therefore, effectively saying to God – here are our expectations, you had better play along.
So when we look at this passage, this series of movements, what we are essentially getting is another example of how people expected a different kind of Messiah, a different kind of kingdom. We’ve seen this theme before – but it’s not just that. I think there’s more here. It’s a greater condemnation, a greater challenge, than we’ve seen before. Because in juxtaposing John’s ministry with his own, I think what Jesus is saying to a certain group of people (not all prospective followers of Jesus), is that it wouldn’t matter how the Messiah appeared or what he did – because these people aren’t really looking for the Messiah at all. They aren’t really looking for God at all.
What they are looking for is someone who will meet their conditions, subject themselves to certain demands – “dance when I say dance; mourn when I tell you to mourn” – and only then, might they be willing to call that person “messiah.”
I think it’s a subtle distinction, but an important one, between expectations and conditions. It’s one thing to have expectations of God. Expectations can, to some extent, be corrected through good teaching (for example). Expectations might come about because of how you grew up, the time and the place, live experiences, people you come across and develop relationships with, and etc.
But I think when we put conditions on God – “God, I will believe in you if you do x, y, or z” – it’s because of something fundamentally broken in our hearts. At the end of the day, we don’t want God at all. What we want is someone or something (it doesn’t matter which) that will cater to us, mollify us, or ratify us. That is to say, what we want is someone or something to serve us, to make us feel better, or to tell us we were really right after all.
And to be honest, these aren’t really bad or wrong things. Of course we want these things – because we’re human. We are broken people trying to make our way in a broken world and of course we want things to be better.
But it’s not the same thing as wanting God. Wanting things to be better (especially according to our own wisdom) is not the same thing as wanting the kingdom of God.
I don’t want to go on and on about it because we’ve (once again) talked about this in length. But I will say that it’s impossible to accept Jesus as king if we refuse to let go of the hope that we can be our own kings. It’s impossible to accept the kingdom of God if we insist on being our own gods.
On a practical note, this is (one of the reasons) why confession is so important. Because the tendency of sinful human nature is to understand the whole world revolving around ourselves, it’s important to examine ourselves and bring these tendencies before God. To ask ourselves why certain things are so important for us – where do those desires come from? And it’s important to recognize that God’s plans and purposes for our lives – indeed for the whole world – are so much greater, so much better than our own. More so than we can even conceive.
In our book club, we’ve been reading and talking about Prayer. One of the passages that we shared this past week (from St. Augustine) suggests that we should pray to be happy, to have a happy life – and this because God wants us to be happy. But it also suggests that we need to understand that this means trusting in God – rather than our own limited understandings – for what a happy life means.
If you asked me when I was 10 years old, 15 years old, or even 20 years old what it would take for me to be happy, and then gave that to me now, I would be disappointed. Because my understanding of life and happiness was too small. I didn’t understand, 20 years ago, what happiness was about. It’s not that I was wrong (though certainly sometimes I was) – it’s that my ideas, my understanding of life, were too small. And they still are.
And my understanding of God, of what He is doing, what He wants for me, is likewise still too small. So I’m not trying to say, and I hope that you don’t understand, that God’s way, God’s kingdom, is somehow about doing away with, not getting, or giving up the things we want out of life. What I’m suggesting is that we should want so much more. Life can be so much more, so much bigger. But it’s only so if we can put our trust in the author of life, the redeemer of life. Because it’s only in Him that we find life.
And so, what I am trying to do – slowly, imperfectly – is to let go of my expectations, conditions, and demands; to let go of the things and seek after God. To let go of myself and seek first the kingdom of God. As we are able to do so, trusting in the grace of Christ, all these things will be added unto you as well.