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:
- In verse 8, the “robes” part of “soft robes” is implied rather than stated directly. Literally it’s more like “soft things.”
- Also in verse 8, a more literal translation of the words used for “royal palaces” would be “kings’ houses” or “kings’ homes.”
- “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 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.