Studi biblici/Matteo 11:2-11/Matthew 11:2-11

Da Tempo di Riforma.

The world degenerates, God regenerates

Under the banner of decadence

Is there a word that could describe the reality in which we live, in all its aspects? Yes, it is the verb “to decay” from which the terms “decadence” and “decadent” come.

Decaying means gradually losing strength, prosperity, vitality. It means moving from one state of prosperity towards the most miserable of conditions. It's like a battery exhausting its power, or like when you throw a ball. The initial impulse makes it go fast but then gradually, without further pulse, gravity slows it and finally it stops. We may also think of a house or a car that wears away, deteriorating over time. It becomes worn and beyond repair. Finally you have to replace it. It’s no longer enough to do ongoing maintenance. Too many thing have gone wrong with it. There are many examples of this phenomenon. There is decay from a state of productivity and prosperity so that energetic people, gifted with powers of wealth become lazy or become unwilling to adjust and their economy withers. Then there are many secular institutions that start well but run down, or wind up, through fraud. There is human prowess that decays with age, such as that of a footballer. The Bible puts it this way: "For all flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of the grass; the grass withers and the flower falls off, but the word of the Lord endures forever" (1 Peter 1:24). The human body, after having reached its psycho-physical maturity, gradually weakens. It wears out, falls ill and dies. What it dies, then it is corrupted beyond repair and completely disintegrates.

You could say that our spirit, which is not material, could remain young and vital forever. But without a permanent support structure that is not worn out and does not die, this aspiration too remains frustrated. Consider, then, the moral decay and corruption of a society, a nation, or of a person not taking care of its body, mind and spirit, and which "lets go". Think of the term "degrade" from which we have “degeneration”, a term often used about poor areas of cities. This word speaks of stepping down, descending from a standard of health, optimal function, or fitness.

We may speak of the constant scientific and technological “progress” of mankind. The word “progress” comes from the Latin for “stepping forward”. Morally and spiritually, however, we know that there is no real progress, because the human character and spirit remains subject to the curse of what we call the Fall, the degradation or decay of mankind from its primordial condition - just as the Bible reveals - because of his alienation from God, the source of health and life. This is the ultimate cause of all our problems. We delude ourselves if we think within ourselves we have the resources for full autonomy. For without the constant impulse that we receive from God, we are like the ball that after the initial pulse slows down and finally stops because it does not have its own source of energy. If God were to leave us, if He were not to send more "energy" (and He does) we would become physically and spiritually useless, just like many technological gadgets that we own. With no electricity, they can no longer work. Even the cells and batteries, sooner or later, run out and all our machines are stopped and become useless.

Why have I described this bleak landscape? Is not all this, natural or in the order of "nature". Yes. But from this situation we can not save ourselves. If salvation is imaginable, it cannot come from simply fixing what does not work, what degrades by nature to a certain point of breakdown. Also putting patches in old clothes can serve, only up to a certain point. Eventually the whole garment wears out, not because of accidental holes but because the basic cloth wears out with use. Genuine salvation can only come from One who can establish an entirely new order of reality which overdcomes the natural order, from someone who can reverse the process of decay and regenerate reality, someone who can create a reality with characteristics of permanence, durability and immortality, capable of self regenerating. We need a different kind of reality that knows no corruption.

The Biblical Text

John the Baptist, the last prophet, had announced the coming of the Saviour, the Messiah and had identified this figure with Jesus of Nazareth before anyone else. He knew, however, that the true Saviour, the true Messiah had to have characteristics very different from all false saviours, who take turns at self promotion in this world, who do not accomplish anything substantial. He had to have in Himself the regenerating power of life. It is for this reason that in the biblical text before us today, he wants to make absolutely sure that Jesus really is the long-awaited Saviour. He wants confirmation that Jesus really is "making a difference" to reality, reversing the regressive processes that prevail because only then he would clearly be seen as the Saviour of the world, not one of many deluded deceivers who appear on the historical scene. We read the text as we find it in Matthew 11:2-11.

"Now when John heard in prison about the deeds Christ had done, he sent his disciples to ask a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”. Jesus answered them, “Go tell John what you hear and see: The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” While they were going away, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes Look, those who wear fancy clothes are in the homes of kings! What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John appeared. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, who is to come. The one who has ears had better listen!"(Matthew 11:2-11).

Transition was not yet Full

"Now when John heard in prison about the deeds Christ had done, he sent his disciples to ask a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (2-3).

This is the only place in the Gospel of Matthew where the term "Christ" is used only in reference to Jesus. Christ is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word "Messiah." "One who is to come" was a messianic title: "Then I say, “Look! I come! What is written in the scroll pertains to me" (Psalm 40:7); "May the one who comes in the name of the Lord be blessed! We will pronounce blessings on you in the Lord’s temple" (Psalm 118:26). Consequently Matthew explicitly states, in unequivocal terms, that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. Christ could not be a product of fallen humanity, or even the best of men, but a "new creation" that proceeds from God.

Matthew, in his gospel, presents this King’s credentials in relation to His birth, baptism, temptations, doctrine, and supernatural power. Israel had heard the message of the coming of the Messiah by John the Baptist, the King himself and his disciples. His great miracles had authenticated His 'call to repentance. Now Israel had to make his decision.

John sends two of his disciples to Jesus. This distinction between John's disciples and the Jesus’ indicates that the former were not true believers in Jesus, but still followed John. They had not yet made ​​the transition from John to Jesus. Maybe that's why he sent them to him, because they had doubts!

Anyway, Matthew sees John as the representative of the best of Israel, the last member of the Old Testament and the conjunction with the New. When Matthew finds the question of John: "Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?" He seems to do this for several reasons.

There were, in fact, misconceptions, misunderstandings and consequent disappointments in Israel, about the programme and methods of this Messiah. John had heard in prison about the works of Jesus and, in fact, they seemed to be “messianic”. Jesus, however, did not explicitly assert His authority in public. He did not initiate judgment, as John thought that Jesus would do (3:10-12). John may have been influenced by these misconceptions. In addition, his time in prison, isolated from the world, which is an incongruous place for a herald of the King, may have reinforced such doubts.

Secondly, the purpose of this text is to reaffirm the concept that the proof of the Messiahship of Jesus are his works. By "works" is meant not only miracles, but teaching and activities too.

John, while announcing the coming of the Messiah in Jesus, probably was unable to see the distinction between the first and the second comings of the Messiah (announced in the New Testament), the first as Saviour, and the second, as Judge. John may have seen these as simultaneous. He did not conceive of "the time of the church" between these two comings. John saw Jesus as bringing blessings to many but he did not see, materialising, the universal judgment that he had expected (Matthew 3:10-12). The "judgement" of Jesus brought was implied, but still limited at that time. In fact, the universal judgment will come only at the end of time with the triumphant return of Jesus. John’s questions and concerns may have been emanating from this point. For this reason, we can imagine him as discouraged, like dejected Elijah the prophet, when he thought he was the last believer. For John "is the Elijah who was to come" (Matthew 11:14).

The Nature of the Work of Christ

"Go tell John what you hear and see: The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them" (4-5).

Jesus responds to the messengers of John with a summary of his ministry, making use of the language of the prophecies of Isaiah. It is prophecy accomplished. Jesus responds not reaffirming His title, but stating what was the nature of the works that He did, and the nature of time they were experiencing.

The activities listed paraphrase different descriptions in the Old Testament of promise of salvation.

"Then blind eyes will open, deaf ears will hear. Then the lame will leap like a deer, the mute tongue will shout for joy; for water will flow in the desert, streams in the wilderness" (Isaiah 35:5 -6), "Your dead will come back to life; your corpses will rise up. Wake up and shout joyfully, you who live in the ground! For you will grow like plants drenched with the morning dew, and the earth will bring forth its dead spirits" (Isaiah 26:19); "At that time the deaf will be able to hear words read from a scroll, and the eyes of the blind will be able to see through deep darkness. The downtrodden will again rejoice in the Lord; the poor among humankind will take delight in the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 29:18-19), "The spirit of the sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has chosen me. He has commissioned me to encourage the poor, to help the brokenhearted, to decree the release of captives, and the freeing of prisoners" (Isaiah 61:1).

Jesus is not a seller of “magic bullets” for life. He is the one that transforms reality. He is not repairing the old but regenerating it. He is not putting a patch on a torn dress, but providing an entirely new perspective. He is not calling people to make an effort to be "better people". He imparts an enabling Spirit to work within them. He is not appealing people to do "good works" of compassion to win salvation. Instead, he works to remove the “stone heart” (the moral and spiritual core of people) and to replace it with a new pulsating heart of moral and spiritual vitality. Jesus reverses degenerative processes. This is the basic characteristic of His Messiahship. All this is at three levels: physical, moral and spiritual.

  • Blind people receive their sight, including those who were "born blind". This restoring of sight certainly had a physical value, in itself. Blind people who are made to see are symbols of the spiritual blindness produced by sin that prevents us from "seeing God” (his existence, powers, values, intentions and activities), as well as ourselves (our condition as creatures created in function of God and the sin which corrupts us radically). Here we have people who, thanks to Jesus, receive their sight, open their eyes, see things as they really are. They are freed from darkness. Jesus makes people “see” and therefore become whole.
  • Brought to Jesus, lame people walk properly and with a brisk pace. This has a physical value in itself. Those people who are now walking and "jumping like deers, walking without hindrance and with enthusiasm and energy this “straight way” behave in a manner appropriate to God’s creatures. They are creatures made ​​to live in communion with Him and be witnesses of His glorious justice. Walking without Christ is tiring and "foolish" because it is not walking to the goal established for us by God. Walking properly means “to behave properly”. Jesus makes people “walk”.
  • Lepers are cleansed by Jesus. This has a physical value in itself, but what else if not sin is what deforms, disables and is repugnant to human life? Sin makes humans, at their worst, horrible monsters that only the imagination of horror movies can imagine. Sin, then, is contagious and fatal. There are some, however, who welcome and encourage others to commit it "cheerfully." Humanity is capable of committing horrendous things which everyone would condemn, but every sin is horrific in God's eyes. He cannot simply forgive sin. Sin is so serious in His eyes that its legal consequences must first be taken upon himself by none other except the eternal Son of God made ​​man. Only he is able to deprive it from all its perverse power. Jesus cleanses.
  • Deaf people are brought by Jesus to hear distinctly, their ears are unstopped to hear "the words of the book". How many speeches and exhortations are made today by clergymen, philosophers, teachers and politicians! But who really is willing to put them into practice? They talk to the wind, as it were. The "words of the book" is the Word of God. Many listen to it, but do not actually implement its commands. They listen to it, read it, but did not really listen or read it. Only their own ideas are important for them. "Then Bible says so, but I think that ...". The proverb says, "There are none so deaf as those who will not listen." Jesus makes possible authentic listening to the Word of God and also listening to those who challenge you with their needs. Jesus “sensitizes” the mind.
  • What do dumb people mentioned in the prophecies do when they meet Jesus? They sing for joy! This means to express all the joy of having found in Jesus a Saviour, the One who came to give His whole life so that they and we can be given the grace of eternal salvation. It means expressing gratitude to God, without shyness and shame, in openly testifying to the gospel of Christ. Jesus transforms a heart of stone into a heart, sensitive to God and to others.
  • Prophecies realized in Jesus talk about people who repent from the conceit and arrogance of wanting to be independent, live without God, from manipulating “God” and “religion” to their convenience and liking. Here are people who, thanks to Jesus, are spiritually regenerated, who show humility. They are downsized before God and in that action their hard and proud hearts become “hearts of flesh”. Through humble submission and obedience to God, they find their true dignity, the dignity that they had thought to find, without God. Jesus shapes people and reduces them to their true, appropriate "scale" in relation to him.
  • These prophecies speak of people with broken hearts who have been comforted by Jesus. In him they find joy. Life in this world implies for all of us difficulties of many kinds, such as suffering,alienation, illness and bereavement. Those who rely on Jesus, not only find comfort, healing and consolation, but also strength to react positively to the difficulties of life and to grow through them. They begin to see everything, every event of their lives, as under the control of the providential God, who makes everything work to their ultimate good.
  • Those same prophecies speak of liberation from slavery and the opening up of prisons. This may be physically. It may refer to real prisons where some people were justly and unjustly imprisoned. Or it may refer to phsychological prisons, such as vices, fears, personality traits, obsessions or painful addictions. It could be the imprisonment of false ideologies. How can we not see in this release, the liberation from slavery to the effects of sin to the liberty of the children of God? People generally want to be free to have what they call "free will". They are unaware, however, of the many invisible shackles and constraints that force them to serve many different masters, exploiting and maneuvering them. Among these “masters”, last but not least, is the arch enemy of God, Satan. Jesus undoubtedly “frees”, as nobody else in this world can free because He frees people from this invisible, “hideous” power, as C S Lewis called it.
  • Poor people - poor in every sense - are those who hear the proclamation of the Gospel and welcome it with joy. They become rich possessing those eternal values ​​that will not be taken away from them. Through his undeserved grace, they are enriched with all spiritual blessings. Then, even if they are not economically rich, they live their condition of deprivation, in the spirit of Christ, and in imitation of him, which is trusting in the providence of God, and sharing with others, what they have been given by God. In fact, it is also in sharing that Christians find an abundant life, for sharing multiplies what God has given, many times.
  • The most astonishing announcement of the Christian faith is, finally, that Christ has conquered death for all those who rely on Him. He did it literally during His earthly ministry. He will one day raise to life again those who have been entrusted to Him. He ensures that they receive the grace of salvation. Jesus, through the effective work of the Holy Spirit revives, quickens, resurrects the spirit of the human spirit that has been "killed" by sin. The world cannot understand this but when a person is involved in the work of Christ, he or she experiences that which goes far beyond any imagination. Many people, all over the world, yesterday and today, can testify to it. Jesus gives people “new life”, new hope, new power and new strength.

All this abundantly satisfies John the Baptist’s quest. It enables him to bear with his tragic end, sure of having fulfilled the task that God had given him to do. This is what is most important for every child of God, to do the will of God. The unbelieving world is undoubtedly judged and will be judged and the people of God's elect will be saved, because for them, the Messiah, the Christ came. John announced him to the world.

Undoubtedly a Great Man

John’s disciples go away and report to John the response of Jesus. Jesus in His turn, turns to the crowd, further confirming the truthfulness of John’s ministry. John had borne witness to Jesus. Now Jesus bears witness to John.

“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fancy clothes Look, those who wear fancy clothes are in the homes of kings! What did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and forceful people lay hold of it. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John appeared" (7-11).

People still have an interest in, want to see and follow “the celebrity of the moment” about whom “everyone” is talking. John the Baptist, was not "a reed shaken by the wind", a conformist person who bends, compliant with every wind of doctrine. He was not "a man clothed in soft raiment", a hedonist who loves “la dolce vita", an actor, a politician, a millionaire, a guru, or all of these things together. Instead, he was an unconventional nonconformist, with a message uncomfortable, for everyone. He was a unique person. Why everybody went to hear him can only be explained because he had had a profound impact on the consciences of many people. The consience can be suppressed to a certain point, only. John awoke the conscience and also awoke the deep expectations that nobody in this world can truly satisfy, except a real “man of God”.

In delivering this eulogy about John, Jesus probably wanted to dispel in His disciples, that John, with his doubts, had a weak character. John had faithfully preached the message that God had entrusted to him. But he was not fully aware of all the implications of the Messiahship of Jesus. This was not given to him by God. That insight would be given only to the disciples of Jesus, taught by God himself, who would experience the whole counsel of God relating to Jesus the Christ, the meaning of His death and mission. The Old Testament had its role, but it is not complete without the teaching of Jesus and His apostles. In defence of John, Jesus defends the Word that God transmitted through the Old Testament. He also says that in itself, it is insufficient without his full revelation and his Holy Spirit.

John, for Jesus, was "more than a prophet" because he directly introduced the One, Jesus, who inaugurates a new era.

"Truly, I say to you, among those born of women, there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is at most greater than he" (11). No one can be considered to be greater than John was, because he was the immediate precursor of the Messiah. No one born of woman, a human being, had ever had a more important ministry, until that time. Yet, Jesus says, "the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he". This is because John and the other prophets anticipated the kingdom of Jesus. But those who follow Jesus share it directly. Experiencing the Kingdom, as a citizen, is more important than being the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. Having and sharing “the new life” is the thing that matters in all eternity.

Conclusion

The qualifying traits of Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, those which were presented as testimony to John, in this passage, and those set out by the evangelist Matthew in his whole Gospel, are clear for those “who have eyes to see”. Even the best of the false saviours of this world can only alleviate some suffering, put some “patches” on the evil of this world. There is only one person, Jesus of Nazareth, who transcends this world, who sets the stage for the complete regeneration of the reality of this world. for everyone who trusts in Him.

If the world inexorably degenerates, God inexorably regenerates. If the world lives, or rather, scrapes a living to get by and then inexorably dies, Jesus puts some on their feet, those who rely on Him. He “draws them up” through resurrection to eternal life. All this is despised or misunderstood by many today. Many laugh when we talk to them about Jesus and living according to His teachings.

This is the reason why, at the end of our Bible text today, we find this: "Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me" (6). Surely, as he always says the Scripture, Jesus will be "... a stone that makes a person trip, and a rock that makes one stumble ... a trap and a snare" (Isaiah 8:14). This is a warning not to allow the ministry and character of Jesus which still today can seem “ambiguous” to some, as it may have done to John and his disciples, to become an obstacle to faith, and a reason to reject him. The text uttered by Jesus, states that John was outstanding and started well. But here Jesus also seems to admonish him, for not accurately reading the evidence of his miracles. By contrast, he gives his blessing to those who believe that God is working, without requiring undue evidence of it. "Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are the people who have not seen and yet have believed'"(John 20:29).

Receiving Jesus today does not mean building on distant hopes and illusions but partaking now now in the first fruits of his new creation.

Paolo Castellina, 12/12/2013