John the Baptist’s Legacy

I don’t think I realized until last summer―when I was preparing a sermon on John the Baptist for a preaching class―how many things Jesus says that are actually direct quotes from John the Baptist, at least as recorded by the gospel writer Matthew.

First I noticed that right as Jesus begins his public ministry, in the chapter directly following the one about John the Baptist, Jesus says, “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17). This is exactly what John was saying in Matthew 3:2. (See this earlier post for some thoughts on repentance/confession.)

I got kind of interested in this, and so it caught my eye when a commentary I was reading mentioned the parallel; the commentary then noted that this isn’t the only parallel between John’s words and Jesus’ words in the book of Matthew.

It turns out that Jesus calls the religious leaders a “brood of vipers,” twice (Matthew 12:34 and 23:33). Those are John’s exact words from Matthew 3:7. (See these two earlier posts for some thoughts on this viperly brood.)

Jesus also says, “every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 7:19). This is repeated verbatim from John’s words in Matthew 3:10. (See this earlier post for some thoughts on good fruit.)

Given all this, it’s no wonder that some people (including Herod) thought that maybe Jesus was John the Baptist back from the dead!

What’s going on here? On one end of a gradient of Scripture interpretation (from more emphasis on God’s inspiration to more emphasis on the human writers), is Matthew just being lazy, or mixed up about who said what? Or, on the other end of that gradient, did God’s Spirit independently move both Jesus and John to say the exact same things?

It seems most likely to me that Jesus heard what John had been preaching―maybe when Jesus went to be baptized by John, or maybe otherwise―and he intentionally picked up and kept on propagating John’s words after John’s death.

This is certainly what it sounds like in Matthew 4:12-17: “now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee…from that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

John’s public ministry was over, and it was time for Jesus’ to begin. And Jesus began by quoting John―and he kept on quoting John, at different points throughout his three-year itinerant teaching career. Jesus took up John’s legacy and extended it.

I think it was like Jesus was saying, this John the Baptist guy―I’m not him, but I am with him. I’m behind everything he was saying. I’m here with the same kind of message, sent by the same God. The kingdom of heaven is near. Repent, believe, bear good fruit. Fear God, confess sins, receive forgiveness. Challenge the poisonous structures and systems and ideologies around you; don’t scheme and strategize as if God couldn’t raise up children from stones; don’t be a brood of vipers.

As we think about who Jesus is, and as we try (this Christmas and beyond) to wrap our minds around the crazy idea that the God who created the universe came to us as a vulnerable baby and lived among us as a human, may we remember that John the Baptist who came before him was not just some random weirdo out in the desert; rather, John was the person whose legacy Jesus took up and ran with.

When we seek to worship, serve, love, and honor Jesus, and to live by Jesus’ teachings, we are honoring the Jesus who honored John; we are following the teachings of the one who repeated John’s teachings. We are serving the one whose sandals John recognized himself as being unworthy to untie; we are worshipping the Messiah toward whom John lived to point us.

So, this Christmas day, happy birthday to Jesus: the relative of John the Baptist, who was baptized by John and listened to John. Happy birthday to Jesus, for whom John made paths straight. Happy birthday to Jesus, who, when he invites us to take up our crosses and follow him, invites us to follow John’s example and be faithful to God rather than human authorities right up until death―just as John was when he died at Herod’s hands.

Happy birthday to Jesus, and Merry Christmas!

Ps. Thanks for reading! It’s been very encouraging to see page view numbers greater than zero :D. Whether you’ve stuck with it all twenty-five days, or have checked in here and there, or are just checking it out for the first time today, thank you―your eyeballs on this page (just kidding, but really, your time and brain and heart processing these posts) really mean a lot to me. I hope something here has been interesting, thought-provoking, or otherwise helpful.

Elizabeth’s Pregnancy

This is not a pregnancy announcement :D.

It’s not really a full blog post either.

I was thinking about writing something about Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist. After all, it’s almost Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus―and Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy and Mary’s were closely connected.

I love the story Luke tells about Mary’s visit to her relative Elizabeth, when Mary had just become pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy with John the Baptist:

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (Luke 1:39-45)

I love that John’s mother was something of a prophet in her own right. The Holy Spirit filled her, and she spoke: words of blessing, words of foretelling, words of wisdom. Words of humility and wonder and hope and joy and faith.

I also love what Mary said in response:

My soul exalts the Lord,
and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior,
because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant.
For from now on all generations will call me blessed,
because he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name;
from generation to generation he is merciful to those who fear him.
He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts.
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy,
as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
(Luke 1:46-55)

Good things happen when women speak and write and preach and make poetry! I love that Elizabeth’s words of blessing called forth these brave and beautiful words from Mary.

I also love that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months after that (Luke 1:56). These two women from two different generations showed up for each other and supported one another in a time when there weren’t too many other people who would or could understand what God was doing in their lives.

Mostly, though, I just wanted to share a link to an article about Elizabeth’s pregnancy that I thought was interesting. It’s written by Lara Freidenfelds, who is a historian of health, reproduction, and pregnancy, and has spent fifteen years writing a book about miscarriage.

I love it when people with expertise in all sorts of different (non-theology) subject areas bring all of their intelligence and years of study into their reading of the Bible and share what they think.

I also love it when women speak and write on the women of the Bible (as well as just in general).

So Dr. Freidenfelds’ article is cool. I hope you enjoy it. (If not now, because Christmas Eve and family and everything, then maybe bookmark it for later :).)

Merry Christmas Eve!

Speaking Honestly

For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been telling him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet. 

But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. 

Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.”

The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison.

The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. (Matthew 14:3-11)

So here we are, at the tragic and gruesome end of John the Baptist’s life.

Something caught my attention while reading this passage in Greek. It might seem like a small thing, but I think it’s worth reflecting on.

The Greek text says, very clearly, that “[Herod] beheaded John in the prison” (or, if you want the whole verse 10, something like “and [Herod], after sending [someone], beheaded John in the prison”). Both verbs―the sending and the beheading―are in the active voice. Herod is the subject, John the object. Herod beheaded John. He probably sent someone else to do the physical act of killing, but it is clear that Herod is the agent responsible for it.

I think this struck me because it feels a little more direct and blunt than the most common English translations, which say that “[Herod] had John beheaded” (NRSV, NIV, ESV, CEB, NASB). Herod had John beheaded. There’s a little more distance here; perhaps even a little more moral murkiness as well. Herod didn’t really do the killing himself. Is he really fully responsible? What about the person who was sent?

Maybe this thought is more about Matthew―and just about the Bible in general, and power, and words, and history-telling―than about John the Baptist, but I found Matthew’s directness striking and refreshing. Herod beheaded John. It’s awful, it’s gory, it’s tragic―but it’s the truth. It’s what happened.

Matthew tells the story differently from how I imagine Herod might tell the story. I think most of us are are pretty good are coming up with nice-sounding justifications for our own actions. And sometimes these justifications are so nice-sounding that we fool even ourselves.

I wonder what Herod would have written if he had sat down to journal later that night, once the guests had gone and he was by himself in his palace―sitting by the fire, one year older, reflecting on his life. 

Perhaps he would have written something like this, or at least some parts of it:

I love my stepdaughter so much. It has not been easy for her to accept me, and to accept that I am now a part of her mother’s life in a way I wasn’t before. And I understand that. But I really want her to like me.

So when we were all having fun together and she was dancing and enjoying herself at my birthday party, I thought, maybe today is the day we finally begin to have a better relationship. I thought, I want to show her how committed a father I can be to her. I can provide for her. I will give her whatever she asks. I want her to have whatever in this world will make her heart happy. Nothing is too big.

So I told her that. I thought, maybe she’ll ask for money. I can do that. The hand of a handsome young man in marriage? That can be accomplished. Maybe I can throw a big feast for her own birthday so that she can celebrate with her friends. Or I could get her a pony. Little girls like ponies, right?

I waited eagerly to hear what she might ask. But when she spoke, my heart fell within me. The head of John, on a silver platter.

Yes, I had imprisoned John. I couldn’t let him walk around saying nasty things about my wife and I for everyone to hear, could I? But I didn’t mean to kill him.

I told my stepdaughter I would do anything she asked. And, of all of the things in the world, she asked for that. What could I do? I had to keep my word to her.

I am a man deeply committed to keeping my promises. I am a man of integrity. And today that integrity was costly for me.

But I did what I had to do. The only thing I could do. The only thing that would maintain the trust of my guests. If I didn’t keep my word in front of them, what would they have thought? My people’s trust in my leadership is essential for the peace and security of our region.

And so, I sent a servant to do the only thing that could be done. My stepdaughter had to have what she asked for. I didn’t want to do it, but there was no way out. I was put in a terrible bind, and it grieved me deeply. There was no good option, but even so, I did the best thing I could do.

After all, that’s what leaders do. We make difficult choices. We do the right thing for the sake of the people, for the sake of order and stability. That’s what I did today.

Herod might have said all sorts of things to himself. And, if there were some tetrarch-friendly media outlets around at the time, they might have repeated these things. And these things might have begun to pass as news.

But the gospel writer Matthew says: Herod killed John. Herod did have a choice. He did have moral agency. Herod was not, in fact, in a difficult bind where he did the best thing he could do. Herod’s choice to kill John was a cowardly one, and it revealed how much more he cared about his dinner guests’ opinions of him―about people-pleasing―than about doing what was actually the right thing.

There is no excuse for what Herod did in murdering John, and Matthew does not try to make one.

I think that if Matthew were here in the US today, telling stories about recent history or current events, he would tell them in the same sobering yet refreshingly straightforward way. And I think we need this.

When a police officer kills a black man, I think we need to say so. “It was an officer-involved shooting” doesn’t quite cut it. (And “well, the black man was [insert completely unrelated previous petty crime or other character defamation here]”―implying that the murder was somehow understandable, or somehow not quite actually murder―definitely doesn’t cut it.)

When a man commits sexual assault against a woman, I think we need to say so. “He was such a promising athlete―we don’t want to ruin his life and career just because he made this one mistake” doesn’t quite cut it. (And “well, the woman had had a bit to drink,” or “she was wearing something provocative”―implying that the assault was somehow understandable, or somehow not quite actually assault―definitely doesn’t cut it.)

When speaking about things like these, we can use language to exonerate people’s actions, or to hold them appropriately accountable. Matthew does the latter, and in so doing―in telling the story of John the Baptist’s death with all of its horrifying and gruesome reality, and in holding Herod completely responsible for it―I think he honors John the Baptist’s own spirit of tell-it-like-it-is bluntness.

May we too have the courage to use language that does not minimize tragedy but speaks of it honestly and directly, and that refuses to falsely exonerate its perpetrators.

Troubled (White) Consciences

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” (Matthew 14:1-2)

Guilty conscience, much?

King Herod hears that there’s this guy named Jesus who is going around teaching, telling stories, healing, casting out demons, and generally doing all kinds of miracles. (From what Herod says about miraculous powers at work, it sounds like he mostly cares about the miracles, not so much about the teachings.) Herod hears these things and immediately thinks of John the Baptist―the guy he had imprisoned and then killed. Some new prophet-type person is gathering a following and doing supernatural things? Oh no, it must be John! There’s no other explanation for it.

John the Baptist troubled people’s consciences during his life, and it seems that he is still troubling people’s consciences―or at least one person’s conscience―even after his death.

While John was living, he stirred up the consciences of many crowds of people, telling them they needed to repent and be baptized; and he tried to provoke the consciences of the religious leaders by calling them a brood of vipers (Matthew 3). Later on, as we’ll see in the next few verses of Matthew 14, John troubled Herod’s conscience by telling him it was not lawful for him to have his brother’s wife.

If we’re willing to try to empathize with Herod for a moment here, I would suggest that sometimes we need people like John the Baptist―people who trouble our consciences.

For example, as a white person in the US, I think of the prophetic black voices over the generations who have troubled white consciences.

I think of people like Frederick Douglass, who, after escaping from slavery, wrote and spoke and campaigned for abolition and equality, troubling the conscience of a slave-holding nation.

I think of Sojourner Truth, who spoke up about her experiences and identity as a black woman, troubling the conscience of a white-dominated feminist movement and its white-centered definitions of femininity.

I think of leaders in the Civil Rights movement, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who troubled the conscience of a segregated South; like Malcolm X, who troubled many consciences by taking (for good reasons) a less optimistic view of white people in the struggle for black freedom; like Ella Baker, who worked hard and brilliantly and often behind the scenes in a movement that sometimes sidelined her because of her gender; like James Baldwin, who wrote a lot of insightful and (appropriately) troubling things about race in America, some of which are summed up in the 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro (worth watching!).

These are just a few examples related to black/white race relations in the US. I am thankful for these conscience-troublers. They have helped shatter the illusions held by too many white people across the generations that everything is okay regarding race in America.

At the same time, I recognize that sometimes―at least for those of us who have consciences in danger of being troubled―it is easy to look back admiringly and thankfully on the powerful conscience-stirrers of past generations, while at the same time eyeing the conscience-troublers of our own generation with suspicion.

If we approach a movement like Black Lives Matter, for example, with a default posture of critique or defensiveness rather than appreciation and solidarity, perhaps we are not terribly unlike king Herod in his fear that John the Baptist was back from the dead. Herod recognized a (holy) spirit at work in Jesus that felt like the same one he saw in John the Baptist, and Herod recognized that all was not right between him and John the Baptist, and so he was troubled.

Perhaps many white Americans likewise recognize something like the spirit of the Civil Rights movement revived in new forms in the last few years. And for many white Americans, the spirit of struggle for black equality is a spirit that challenges everything we were raised to believe―and wanted to believe―about how much progress America has made in the last generation, and how racism is dead.

In the midst of this, when our consciences are stirred, we can either receive this stirring with guilt, as Herod did―in which case we often get so tripped up by this guilt that we either ignore it or are paralyzed by it―or we can allow the stirring of our consciences to drive us to ask new questions. To see our world in a different light. To seek together to build new ways of living that are more just and equitable.

For me, having my white conscience troubled isn’t always fun and comfortable, but I would rather be aware of the actual realities than remain blissfully ignorant. Because when I do remain ignorant, my life might seem blissful enough, but others suffer―others with whom I am in fact one body (1 Corinthians 12).

I would rather not be counted among those who, as the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah said, dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. I would rather not be among those who say peace, peace…when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 8:11).

When I think of present-day conscience-stirrers, I think of people like Cornel West, Michelle Alexander, Willie Jennings, Michelle Higgins, Christena Cleveland, Austin Channing Brown, Daniel White Hodge, Ibram X. Kendi. (This list is pretty arbitrary―I am by no means an expert here; these are just a few people whose work I happen to have either read or have been meaning to read. Feel free to add more names of present-day conscience-troublers in the comments, regarding race relations or anything else―I would love to hear your thoughts.)

Matthew 14:1-2 doesn’t tell us what Herod ended up doing with his guilty conscience. But perhaps, as we connect his story with ours, we find that this open-endedness is ours to walk into. It is up to us to do something good with our troubled consciences, up to us to lean into them rather than shove them under the rug. May we not shut our hearts and minds to the conscience-troublers, but may we open ourselves to hearing, learning, grieving, repenting, learning, changing.

Here’s to today’s conscience-troublers, and to those willing to be troubled.

When You Can’t Win

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
-Jesus (Matthew 11:16-19)

I find this passage very relatable, and, because of that, kind of comforting.

Jesus says: John the Baptist fasted, and he gets called demon-possessed. I eat and drink, and people call me a glutton and a wino. (“Wino” is actually a pretty literal rendering of the word translated as “drunkard” above―no joke!)

For my part, I notice that sometimes I come across as kind of laid-back, or even passive (which is totally fair…sometimes, and about some things…), and sometimes people are uncomfortable with this. So they tell me that I should be more assertive. But then there are times when I am more assertive, and it turns out that people don’t actually like that. They see it as threatening, or inappropriate, or jarring.

This series of illustrations from a few years ago draws attention to just a few of the different sets of contradictory advice that women in particular tend to receive. It’s no secret that, as the article points out―whether in the workplace, dating, or other settings―women are regularly told to stick up for themselves, but then get called things like “bossy,” “aggressive,” or “a handful” if they do. Women are regularly assumed to be not as smart as men, but then are considered intimidating and out of place when they do speak up with a particularly intelligent insight.

I think about this quote (of complex origins), which, to be honest, I think I first saw in an acquaintance’s e-mail signature several years ago: “to avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

I think the quote stuck with me because it struck a chord. I really like avoiding criticism. Or rather, I really don’t like being criticized. It’s no fun at all. The experience of feeling criticized tends to draw out angry, lie-filled (and typo-filled) tweets from some people―and self-doubting, quietly anxious introspection from others.

It’s worth saying that criticism, of course, can be very important and helpful. It’s good to listen to criticism carefully and engage with it thoughtfully―even though most of us don’t find that easy to do.

But criticism can also be paralyzing. It is easy, at least for some of us, to give it so much weight in our lives that we step back from something we are doing because of it. We quit speaking about something that is important to us, or we try to change something about ourselves that maybe wasn’t ever meant to be changed. It’s easy, perhaps, not to be critical enough about the criticism we receive.

Perhaps situations where we relate to John the Baptist the demon-possessed and Jesus the wino―where we feel like we can’t avoid criticism no matter what we do―can spur us to dig deeper within ourselves for a guiding compass more reliable than other people’s estimations. Sometimes criticism comes our way just because other people have a limited perspective. They may be like children calling to one another: we played the flute for you and you did not dance; we wailed and you did not mourn. Their reactions and advice might not actually be appropriate for who we are and what we are supposed to be doing.

As someone who has now (by getting an MDiv) dipped a toe into the world of religious academia, I really enjoyed this recent podcast, where Dr. Daniel White Hodge, James Howard Hill Jr., and Jorge J. Rodriguez V have a great conversation about navigating academia without selling your soul.

One thing that stood out to me from this conversation was the idea of remembering who you are, and remembering who you’re working for. When things get confusing, and mentors and other academic/religious elders are giving you conflicting advice―or advice that doesn’t necessarily match with your own vision and hopes in life―remember who you are, and who you’re doing all this for. Remember the communities you come from. Remember your family and your spouse and their visions for what a flourishing life looks like. And if the decisions you make, based on all that, go against the wisdom of the academy, or of more experienced scholars, that’s okay. You’re not working to fuel the machine of the academy. Your life and dignity is worth more than that.

I think this idea suggests some potentially good ways to measure and evaluate the criticisms we receive. Does the person offering criticism share my vision for the flourishing of my life, family, and communities? What are this person’s expectations for me? Who do they want me to be―and is this who I am, and who I want to be?

If we’re attempting to do anything at all meaningful in this world, we can’t meet everyone’s expectations. We can’t avoid criticism from everyone. But we can learn to thoughtfully sort through the criticism we receive, learn from it, and not let it derail us.

My sense is that people on the underside of societal power structures often find themselves especially deep in the “can’t win” kind of bind that Jesus and John the Baptist experienced. Fast, and get called demon-possessed; eat, and get called a glutton. Be gentle and nice, and you’re constantly overlooked and underestimated; be assertive and set boundaries, and you get called crazy or disruptive or written off as angry.

For women in a patriarchal world, these kinds of perspectives and criticisms matter to us because they are the dominant ones all around us. We have been trained to care too much about what men think and how they criticize us―and this is because we have been trained to believe that their opinions matter more than ours. That their thoughts are more valuable than ours. That their perspectives are more accurate and objective than ours. (As a white person, I defer to people of color to speak about their experiences, but I imagine a similar dynamic often operates there, in which the white gaze dominates and it is difficult to break out of its inordinate power.)

These are not problems with easy solutions. But I do find hope in knowing that Jesus and John the Baptist would understand. They knew what it was like to not be able to avoid criticism. They were both faithful to God―and to their communities, and to themselves―and accepted the reality that not all of the results of this faithfulness would be positive. That it wouldn’t always (or perhaps even often) win people’s affirmation and praise.

I find hope in remembering that for me, as for John and Jesus, people’s criticism (or affirmation) is not where our worth and value lies. It’s not a good measure of success. Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds, not by popularity or avoidance of tension.

When criticism, or the fear of it, threatens to derail and paralyze us―keeping us small and timid and too hesitant to move or act for good in this world―may we remember who we are and who we are working for. And may we remind one another of these things, as often as we need to hear it.

Buddying Up to Power

7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then 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,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 Let anyone with ears listen!”
   (Matthew 11:7-15)

This is kind of a confusing passage. What exactly is Jesus saying about John the Baptist? And what’s with the thing about violent people taking the kingdom of heaven by force?

I’m not at all sure, but I have a few thoughts (and would love to hear yours in the comments section!).

To start off, here are three quick things I noticed when I read this passage in Greek:

  1. In verse 8, the “robes” part of “soft robes” is implied rather than stated directly. Literally it’s more like “soft things.”
  2. Also in verse 8, a more literal translation of the words used for “royal palaces” would be “kings’ houses” or “kings’ homes.”
  3. “Violence” and “the violent” (in verse 12) are kind of strong and unnecessarily negative-sounding translations for words that could mean something more like “forceful,” “energetic,” or “crowded into” or “pressed into.” Thus, the verse could reasonably read something like: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has been crowded into, and the forceful seize it.” (Fun fact: the Greek word that means “seize,” or “take by force,” is where we get our English word “harpoon.” So now you have a fun image of the kingdom of heaven getting caught via harpoon―by people who are very excited about catching it!)

I wonder if, in this passage, Jesus is making a distinction between two kinds of people.

The first kind are those who wear soft things and live in kings’ houses.

The second kind are those who―like John the Baptist―crowd into the kingdom of the heavens and energetically seize it.

People who fall into the first category like to have nice things. They enjoy acquiring status symbols. People who come to mind include the religious leaders who, in Jesus’ later words, love to walk around in long robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplace and have the seats of honor at religious meetings and banquets (Mark 12:38).

Also, people who drive particularly ostentatious sports cars, maybe with that matte black paint and extra-loud exhaust, just to make sure everyone notices them. (My husband Ken and I were crossing the street the other day, and he asked if I noticed the matte black Mustang that pulled up to the busy intersection. I said, “yeah, I saw it―I was just trying not to stare.” He said, “I think if you drive a car like that, you probably don’t mind if people stare.”)

These people who wear soft things also like having power, or at least buddying up to those who have power. They like to hang out in the homes of kings. I don’t know whether they actually live in these homes or if they just like to visit―but either way, they enjoy the feeling of being close to splendor and luxury, being close to the place where decisions are made. Maybe it makes them feel safe; maybe it makes them feel important; maybe it makes them feel better than others.

I imagine that these are people who enjoy spending time in the king’s house so much that they would never dream of saying anything that might possibly offend the king, or contradict him, or imply in any way that he might be less than wonderful and heaven-sent and flawless. They would never do anything that might get them kicked out of the king’s house. Powerful people have these soft-clothing-wearing people in their pocket.

This recent gathering comes to mind, where a group of worship leaders, many of them from Bethel and Hillsong, got together with Trump in the Oval Office for anti-impeachment prayer and a photo op (in which one worship leader near Trump reaches out to touch him, which is an especially creepy look). I appreciate this post’s commentary on the meeting―as Andy Rowell writes, it’s good to pray for the president; it’s just not so good to fawn over him like a celebrity even though he has done and is doing awful things, and to unquestioningly support everything he does just because he says he’s pro-evangelical.

I wonder if the soft-clothed people in kings’ palaces that Jesus talks about are also the people Jesus says are like reeds being shaken by the wind. Perhaps these are people who spend so much time sucking up to kings that they have in some sense traded their own agency―their God-given ability to speak truth and work for justice and co-create with God a better world―for a fickle kind of soft will that readily bends in the direction of the winds of a king’s favor.

In stark contrast, the other kind of people―people like John the Baptist―do not care about status symbols. They live in the wilderness rather than in the king’s palace.

These are people who know that it profits a person nothing to gain the whole world but lose one’s own soul (Matthew 16:26). They have seen that the kingdom of heaven is worth holding onto for dear life, no matter what it might cost―like a person who finds a treasure buried in a field and immediately goes and sells everything to buy that field (Matthew 13:44).

These are people who press into the kingdom of heaven with energy and force. They knock at heaven’s door and do not take no for an answer―like the persistent widow in the story Jesus tells, who keeps pleading with the judge until the judge relents and grants her justice (Luke 18:1-8).

They are not interested in currying the favor of the human king, but in pressing on into the kingdom of God. They keep crying out for justice and peace even when justice and peace seem impossible.

They are prophets, bold and faithful, like Elijah and John the Baptist. And they often experience poverty and risk and are followed by violence and death threats, like Elijah and John the Baptist.

Jesus says that no one has arisen greater than John. These forceful ones who are not content with the palaces of kings but instead storm into the kingdom of God, and who are not content to clothe themselves in soft things but instead long to be clothed in truth and justice―these are the great ones. These are the ones to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. May we be counted among these “forceful” ones.

John and the Bethel Worship Leader’s Daughter

Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus answered them, “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.” (Matthew 11:1-6)

Today I read this passage about John the Baptist and Jesus while thinking about Bethel worship leader Kalley Heiligenthal and her two year old daughter Olive who passed away last Saturday. Kalley, as well as Bethel Music, Jesus Culture, and other popular Christian musicians with charismatic leanings such as Kari Jobe and Brooke (Fraser) Ligertwood, have been praying and asking Christians around the world to pray―and are still praying and asking people to pray, almost a week later―for Olive’s resuscitation.

Kalley posted on social media, “We are asking for bold, unified prayers from the global church to stand with us in belief that He will raise this little girl back to life. Her time here is not done, and it is our time to believe boldly, and with confidence wield what King Jesus paid for. It’s time for her to come to life.”

The passing of a young child is tragic. I can’t imagine the family’s grief, and I mourn for them.

At the same time, the response of people who believe a certain set of things about physical healing, including revival from the dead, is disconcerting.

Christians believe in a Messiah whom, as Jesus told John the Baptist in Matthew 11:1-6, gives sight to the blind, cleanses lepers, restores hearing for the deaf, brings good news to the poor…and raises the dead. And this Messiah says, blessed are those who take no offense at me.

Am I being offended at Jesus when I read about influential Christian leaders expecting (and influencing others to expect) a two year old to be raised from the dead, even after almost a week in the morgue, and I think not so much “what faith!” as “what lunacy”?

Or perhaps, “what denial”―and if denial is part of the grieving process for the family, I think I understand. But I feel angry that so much of the charismatic Christian community around this family is pushing them to stay in that denial rather than making space for them to acknowledge and grieve their loss.

What do we do with all this in conjunction with what Jesus said about the dead being raised?

One thing to note, which I think is really important, is that Jesus’ words are in direct response to John’s question about whether or not Jesus is the Messiah.

Jesus is not answering the question, “how should Christians respond to death?”―in which case, “the dead are raised” might imply that we should keep praying for resuscitation as long as it takes. He is not answering the question, “what should a normal Christian life look like, in the US, two thousand years in the future?”―in which case, “the dead are raised” might set up an appropriate expectation that untimely losses like Olive’s would be reversed on a regular basis.

Rather, Jesus is answering the question, “are you the one who is to come?” And he says, in effect: yes, I am that one. I am that Messiah, even if it doesn’t look like what everyone expected. I am the one who brings healing, and power, and life, and good news for the poor. I raise the dead as a sign that points to these things.

Jesus is the Messiah―God incarnate, God dwelling among us. Jesus has powers that we do not have. We can pray for miracles, and I absolutely believe that God still does miracles. But we do not have the power to control when or whether or how miracles happen. We do not have the ability to say with any authority something like, “it’s time for her to come back to life.” We are not the Messiah.

John the Baptist must have known this. After all, Jesus came (among other things) to set the prisoners free (see Luke 4:18-19)―and yet there John was, having to send his followers to Jesus with his questions because he himself was stuck in prison. Part of me wonders if John began to feel uncertain about whether Jesus was the Messiah because John expected that a Messiah could and would have gotten him out of jail.

Jesus the Messiah came to set the prisoners free―and yet John was thrown in prison and remained until the day of his death.

Jesus the Messiah came to raise the dead―and yet little Olive remains in the morgue, despite the fervent, days-long prayers of hundreds of thousands of charismatic Christians.

As much as we try and fail to comprehend death, and as much as we hurt from the pain of it, and as much as we may want desperately for our deceased loved ones to return, these things are ultimately beyond our control.

My prayer for Kalley and her family in this time, as well as for everyone else who knew and loved Olive, is for freedom to grieve. For love and support to surround them and flow freely, more than they ever could have asked for or imagined. For the loss of their daughter to be mourned in community, with lots and lots of listening ears and supportive shoulders to cry on, and no one suggesting awful falsehoods like “your daughter could have been raised if we had all just prayed longer or harder or had more faith.”

I believe that God walks closely with people who are mourning and grieving loss. God is present, somehow. Even if it doesn’t feel like it. Even when we have questions for God, even when we have things we would like to yell at God. God welcomes these things. God welcomes and holds our grieving selves, exactly as we are.

Christian hope―my hope, and the hope for Olive and her family―is for bodily resurrection into eternal life, the kind of resurrection that Jesus pioneered and now invites us into. The kind that does not come immediately, but when it does come, it lasts. The kind that looks forward to a day when Jesus wipes every tear from our eyes and dwells among us, when mourning and crying and pain will be no more (Revelation 21:3-4).

Until then, may we hope in our Messiah. May we rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15). May we make space, for ourselves and for one another, to acknowledge loss and grieve it. May we pray and hope and keep wrestling with God regardless of whether or how our prayers are answered. May we face our grief and know that somehow God is with us as we do.

John and the Military

Soldiers also asked John, “And we, what should we do?”
He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
(Luke 3:14)

In yesterday’s post I reflected a bit on how John the Baptist’s words to soldiers might relate to present-day law enforcement. Today I want to share a couple of thoughts about the soldier soldier aspect of it. What, if anything, do John’s instructions for Roman soldiers have to do with modern-day militaries and wars?

A few years ago, I found myself talking with a pastor about things like US foreign policy and military violence, and whether or in what ways Christians should or shouldn’t participate in a military machine that has done and continues to do a lot of bad things. The pastor brought up Luke 3:14.

It was my first exposure to what turns out to be a common argument, which goes something like this: when Roman soldiers came to John the Baptist―and we all know that the Roman army did all sorts of bad things―John did not tell them to quit their jobs. He just gave them instructions as to how they should operate within their current roles. Therefore, John did not (and likewise God does not) disapprove of war itself or of the military itself, and it is okay for Christians to participate―as long as they’re good and moral within their roles.

I wasn’t quite convinced by the argument, but I also wasn’t sure how to respond.

Fortunately, though, during my second quarter of seminary, I got to take a whole class called Biblical and Practical Peacemaking, taught by Ron Sanders. And now I know everything!

Just kidding. But the class was really great, and I did learn a lot. I was exposed to different perspectives on things like just war theory―a specific set of standards for determining whether entering a war is just, and for limiting the injustices done both during that war and after it ends―and pacifism―the view that participating in the violence of war is never necessary or justifiable.

One perspective I found really helpful is from a book called Just Peacemaking, edited by Glen Stassen (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2008). In this book’s introduction, the authors argue that, while debates between just war theory and pacifism are not unimportant, there are actually a lot of peace-making practices that we can all agree on, even though we might still deeply disagree about the high-level question of whether or not war is ever right or moral.

Does the fact that John the Baptist did not tell the soldiers to quit their jobs in the army imply, as some believe, that John was not a pacifist? Maybe. Maybe not. We can debate about it, and there are all sorts of other Scripture passages and experiences and other pieces of evidence we could bring in to fuel that debate.

Stassen et al.’s Just Peacemaking book helped me understand that we do not have to resolve all of these disagreements―we do not have to all be on the same page about just war theory and pacifism―before we seek together to move toward practices of just peacemaking. 

We can debate these things as much as we want―and we can bring John the Baptist into it as much as we want, although I suspect that he would want no such thing―but at the end of the day, the likelihood that we will all convince one another and get on the same page at any time in the foreseeable future seems pretty small.

But maybe we don’t have to. Maybe we can move forward together, as Stassen suggests, by asking different kinds of questions together. Questions like: What practices have been historically shown to actually decrease the likelihood of war and the amount of violence in the world? What are the tangible ways in which we can “promote justice and cooperation in a world whose wars are immeasurably destructive” (p. 17)?

According to Stassen et al., “peace, like war, must be waged” (p. 21). There are proactive peace-making measures we can and must take―both for just war theorists, who, at their best, are committed to trying all other possible conflict resolutions before resorting to war, and for pacifists, who, at their best, are committed not only to refuse participation in war but also to actively pursue peace and justice.

John the Baptist didn’t operate within the categories of just war theory or pacifism. These things were developed later.

What John did want was for the Roman soldiers to know that, within the positions they did hold in the military, what they did and did not do mattered. There were things they could do that would increase the violence and awfulness of war, and there were things they could do that would decrease the violence and awfulness of war.

On an individual level, the soldiers could resist the temptation to capitalize on the power available to them through their position or their weapons to take advantage of others (similar to my reflections on law enforcement from yesterday’s post). 

And, on a broader, societal scale, perhaps the soldiers could consider whether the wars in which they were asked to participate may or may not involve extorting money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and/or involve not being satisfied with your wages. After all, it is not only individuals who extort and threaten and falsify, but armies and nation-states as well. It is not only individuals who are not always satisfied with their wages―or their current level of national wealth―but countries as well.
Nations sometimes wage war for the sake of self-protection or because they hope it will serve larger humanitarian causes in the end; other times, they wage war out of a thinly veiled desire to extort (or otherwise extract) money from other countries, often employing false accusations to justify their aggression and violence, drumming up public support on false premises.

It is no secret that the US has been involved in plenty of these latter sorts of wars. I think of the Bush administration’s appeal to the public’s fears of weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the war in Iraq. I think of the recently released Afghanistan papers, which reveal some of the extent of the falsehoods told to the American public about a war that has proven mind-boggling-ly long and costly. 

I’m still not entirely sure what I would have said to the pastor who brought up Luke 3:14 as an argument that the Bible is not particularly pacifist. I might suggest, though, that we allow John’s words to prompt some deep soul-searching―soul-searching not just on the part of individual members of the armed forces but also for all of us who live in a military superpower nation that does not always use its powers for good. 
I might also suggest that we take some of the energy we tend to spend on arguments about just war theory and pacifism and re-direct it toward proactive practices that help build a more just and peaceful world―a world with fewer threats, less extortion, fewer false accusations, and more contentment with our (personal and national) wages.

John and the Long Arm of the Law

Soldiers also asked John, “And we, what should we do?”
He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” 
(Luke 3:14)

This third group of people who come to John the Baptist asking, what then should we do? gets an answer that I want to reflect on from two angles.

The first has to do with law enforcement. The second (which I’ll save for tomorrow) has to do with the military.

I imagine Roman soldiers functioning basically as human extensions of the authority of the Roman emperor, into the farthest corners of Roman-occupied territory. The long arm of the law, if you will.

I imagine they had a fair amount of power, and people kind of had to do what they said. I imagine they carried swords―and that if they were here in the US today, they would carry guns.

It’s not hard to imagine that there probably wasn’t great accountability for those soldiers who decided to abuse their power against civilians. There probably weren’t a lot of checks and balances in place to make sure they didn’t do things like extort money from people by threats or false accusation. If these were the first things that came to mind for John when the soldiers asked, what then should we do, they must have been common practices.

Fortunately for us, modern-day law enforcement officers never abuse their power in these sorts of ways, so we can’t really relate.

Just kidding.

When I think about Roman soldiers making threats and false accusations against people, I think about police officers who frame black and brown people for things like drug possession and send them to jail (often extorting money via bail in the process). A quick Google search for an example brought up this particularly egregious and obvious case―for which there was some accountability, but only slightly subtler things like this happen all the time, often with no accountability.

I think about police officers who make excuses for their own (or their colleagues’) unwarranted, excessive, and often racially-based violence, by defaming the character of the person against whom the violence was inflicted, or by falsely claiming that the person had a weapon, or that there was a good reason to assume they had a weapon. John says, do not make false accusations.

I think about law enforcement officers who betray the people they are meant to serve, by working with, rather than against, organized crime groups. This recent podcast from This American Life tells a horrifying and sickening story about a Central American man who was turned away from the US border upon trying to claim asylum. Along with fellow turned-away asylum seekers, the man was taken to the Mexican immigration office, after which a Mexican immigration officer picked everyone up and drove them all to a bus stop―and then sat in his car and watched while the asylum seekers were picked up not by a bus but by cartel members in a van who drove them to an unknown location and held them for ransom. Later on, when the man’s sister sent money to the kidnappers for his release, she was asked to wire this money to the account number of the Mexican immigration officer. John says, do not extort money from anyone by threats.

Of course, things are complicated, and cartels are terrifying. I wouldn’t want to blame the Mexican immigration officer too easily, or alone. Let’s not forget the complicity of the US immigration agents at the border who, under instructions from Trump’s administration, by default turn away people who are legitimately fleeing for their lives. And, as the This American Life podcast mentions, by releasing people at the border in large groups at a predictable time of day, US agents make these people unnecessarily vulnerable and obvious targets for exploitation.

History and present-day experience are full of people doing normally-unconscionable things, simply because they are told to by their superiors. Stanley Milgram did a famous social psychology experiment in the 1960s with disturbing results to this effect. He had an authority figure (a scientific researcher) instruct participants to administer larger and larger shocks to a person in an adjacent room and found that about two-thirds of participants obeyed the authority figure and administered shocks large enough that (had they been real) they would have likely killed the person in the other room.

Milgram’s intent was to investigate how the Holocaust could have happened, with so many otherwise ordinary citizens participating in it in various ways; his conclusion was that most people will do very bad things if someone else who they believe has legitimate authority is telling them to do it, and if they believe that that person will take responsibility for the consequences.

John the Baptist says, don’t do these things. In the situation you’re in, with the power that you have―and sometimes in spite of all of the other powers you might be under―follow your conscience. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, it might cost you your job (as it did for one of the immigration agents interviewed by This American Life). Do the right thing anyway.

John says, do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation. For all of us―and especially for people who, like the Roman soldiers of John’s day, find themselves in situations where harming others is easy and peers and supervisors either turn a blind eye or push them toward doing harm―do good and not evil to the people you are meant to serve and protect.

Do good and not evil, even if you can do evil and get away with it, with someone else taking responsibility for your actions. Even if you can do evil and it doesn’t really feel like you’re causing someone harm, because that harm is indirect, or happens far away from you. Even if everyone else in the department or agency is doing evil. Even if your supervisor specifically tells you to do evil.

I don’t intend this as an anti-law-enforcement post. There are so many law enforcement officers who serve their communities well, and sacrificially, often facing high risks and bearing high costs in their own wellbeing. John isn’t against the soldiers. He doesn’t call them a brood of vipers, or say away from me, you evildoers (Matthew 7:23), or anything like that. He says, bear good fruit―and for you in particular, given your position in society, that means protect people and don’t exploit them.

Hopefully, for those in law enforcement or similar kinds of positions who are already doing these things, John’s words are comforting: you’re doing the right thing. Keep at it. Be encouraged and strengthened in it. I want everyone to do what you’re doing. It is possible.

May we be thankful for the many people in law enforcement who serve their communities well, while also following John’s lead in calling unapologetically for an end to all kinds of exploitative practices, racism, dishonesty, violence, and other evils. 

Evangelical Pastor John

And the crowds asked John, “What then should we do?”
In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him,“Teacher, what should we do?”

He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” (Luke 3:10-13)

I’m trying to imagine John the Baptist preaching in a typical US evangelical church today.

John stands under a big hipster-looking cross next to a screen that still shows the chorus of the last praise song, and he starts talking about broods of vipers and fleeing the wrath to come and bearing fruit worthy of repentance and the ax lying at the root of the trees (see Luke 3:7-9, or Matthew 3:7-10). In the awkward silence that follows, someone sitting in a pew near the back yells out what everyone is thinking but is too polite to say: what then should we do?

US evangelical pastor John would probably tell them: “It’s really simple. All you have to do is pray and invite Jesus into your heart.” Or: “You have to confess your sins and ask Jesus for forgiveness.” Or: “Just believe in Jesus and give your life to him.” Or: “Come on up to the front of the church during the altar call.”

The crowd, or the congregation, might then say, “Okay―but all of these things are kind of vague. What does inviting Jesus into my heart mean? And coming up to the front of church and getting prayed for―do I have to? What exactly does that do? And what comes next after all these things?”

US evangelical pastor John might respond: “Okay, great! These are really good questions. I’m so glad you’re asking these things. Let’s get into some of the specifics of the Christian faith.”

What are these specifics? Maybe: “It’s as easy as ABC. A: admit your sins to Jesus. B: believe that Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. C: confess your sins, and confess your faith in Jesus.” (Have you heard that one?)

Or evangelical pastor John might say: “Let me tell you about the Roman road. It’s the path to God.” (As this website puts it, it’s a “well-engineered path to salvation.”) He might say something like, “Romans 1:20-21 says that we are part of God’s glorious creation. Romans 3:32 says that we are sinners who fall short of God’s glory. Romans 5:8 says that, even so, Christ died for us, making a way for forgiveness of sins. Romans 6:23 says that God gives us eternal life through Jesus. Romans 10:9-10 says that we can have this eternal life if we confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised Jesus from the dead.” (How about this one―have you heard something like this?)

Or evangelical campus minister John might say: “Do you know God personally? Let me tell you about the four spiritual laws. 1) God created you and wants you to know him personally. 2) People are separated from God by sin. 3) Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection is the only cure for this separation. 4) When we individually receive Jesus as Lord and Savior through faith, we can know God and experience God’s love personally.” (Does this sound familiar?)

The crowds ask, what then should we do? And John the Baptist (actual John the Baptist, not hypothetical US evangelical pastor John) says none of these things. There is no ABC, no Roman road, no four spiritual laws in a neat little pamphlet with cute illustrations.

Instead, John the Baptist offers simple instructions regarding what people should do. He talks about what it looks like to bear the kinds of good fruit that God desires. John talks about how we live.

To the crowds in general, John says, whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. And to the tax collectors, who often abuse their authority by gathering more than the required amount and pocketing the difference, John says, collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.

These instructions are pretty different from the standard evangelical answers to questions like what then should we do?―which generally involve believing a set of propositions, praying some words of a sinner’s prayer, and then (if we talk about the “and then”) reading your Bible and praying and going to church regularly until Jesus comes back or you die and go to heaven. Oh, and in the meanwhile, try not to swear, or drink too much, or do drugs, or have sex outside of marriage.

Evangelical Christians sometimes have an allergic reaction to anything that sounds like do this or don’t do that (with some exceptions, like swearing/drinking/drugs/sex, which we are often perhaps a little too focused on not doing―or on trying to prevent other people from doing). We look at the elaborate legal system God gave the Israelites in Exodus and Leviticus and think, “I have no idea what’s going on with most of these laws. God must have just given them to show us that we could never live up to God’s perfect and impossible standards, that we’re all sinners and need Jesus’ forgiveness. The Jewish people may have laws, but we Christians just have our belief in Jesus.”

The question of what exactly Christians are to make of the laws in the Hebrew Scriptures is a complicated one (and beyond the scope of this reflection). But John’s prescriptions for the people who come to him wondering, what then should we do, are not complicated. They may not be easy, but they are simple. And they are doable.

For us, as for the crowd, sharing our coats and food and other material possessions, when we have them, is something we really can do. We come up with all sorts of reasons and excuses not to, because we’re selfish―but we can do it. It might involve trying harder to build friendships and community across socioeconomic lines, and there are all sorts of barriers to that―but we can do it. It might require us to fight against deeply ingrained assumptions that we earned everything we have, and we deserve everything we have, and if other people don’t have enough, they must just not be working hard―but we can do it.

And for us, as for the tax collectors, choosing to work with integrity in our jobs is something we really can do. We can choose to say no to all sorts of opportunities to cheat, extort, exploit, and otherwise deprive people of money in order to build more wealth for ourselves. It might not always be easy, and it might mean a smaller paycheck―but we can do it. In the context of a company whose culture and ethos is to exploit others, it might even cost us our jobs―but we can do it.

When John says these things, he intends for people to actually do them. They are not just impossible standards that we can never live up to, meant only to help us understand that we need a savior. John really wants people to live in a way that is more generous and less greed-driven. When people ask what they should do, these are the things he talks about. It’s more than just praying a nice-sounding prayer or believing in the doctrines of the Roman road.

John says, the ax is at the root of the trees. Good fruit matters. What does this good fruit look like? Among other things, it can look like sharing what we have with others, and it can look like refusing to participate in exploitative economic practices.

May we hold these things in our minds and hearts, this Advent season and beyond―whenever we find ourselves wondering, what then should we do?