Historical Cultural Context
Jesus and John
John’s question is clear: Is Jesus the “one who is to come” or not? Its meaning is far from clear.
In Jesus’ time there was no uniform or even dominant Judean idea about the Messiah. There wasn’t even a uniform understanding of Judaism.
The multiplicity of ideas in this period prompts contemporary scholars to talk about “Judaisms” and “their Messiahs.”
Jesus’ answer is equally ambiguous.
If he is thinking of Is 35:5-6, his list of credentials could be interpreted as powerful deeds a messiah might do. If instead he is thinking of the Psalms of Solomon 17 (a first-century B.C.E. composition), then he has in mind the ideal Jewish king who is primarily a military and political leader.
The safest opinion is that Jesus accepts the designation “one who is to come” whatever it means.
Professional healers in Jesus’ time preferred to talk about illnesses rather than heal them. Among the peasants, however, folk healers willing to use their hands and risk failure were very common (Mt 17:14-16). Jesus was one of these. Small wonder that Jesus reminds the imprisoned and confused Baptist about his successes as a prophet-healer (Mt 11:5).
Who is John?
Jesus asks: “What did you go out to see: John, or the grass/reed?” The Greek word describes a “reed” that grew only in Egypt and from which pens were made.
There is no doubt, however, that the evangelists are referring to the tail and graceful Arundo donax which grows abundantly and luxuriously along the streams in the Jordan valley.
Its light and feathery head is sensitive to the slightest breeze (1 Kgs 14:15). Its straight and strong stem was used as a walking stick (2 Kgs 18:21), measuring rod (Ez 40:3), and other useful items.
Possibly Jesus intended to contrast the unbending convictions of John with the resilient and flexible grass.
Jesus’ second probing question, contrasting John’s rough Elijah-like clothing with soft garments, may be an intentional comparison of the prophet with the weak-willed Herod Antipas who would put John to death in a short while (Mt 14:1-12).
Today’s reading concludes with Jesus’ affirmation that John is more than a prophet (Mt 11:9) and his honor rating (based on his birth, Mt 11:11) is unsurpassed. But, Jesus adds, the least in the reign of heaven has a higher honor rating than John (Mt 11:12).
At this point, Matthew’s Jesus leaves matters up in the air. Is John part of the reign of God, or excluded from it? Jesus ends with the ultimate ambiguity: “If you are willing to accept it, John is Elijah who is to come” (Mt 11:14).
There is no evidence that in the first century C.E. it was widely known or commonly accepted that Elijah is a forerunner of the Messiah. Such an idea seems to be a Christian adaptation of Mal 3:23 put on Jesus’ lips long after he died.
Confused? Americans may recall Senator Howard Baker’s persistent question in the Watergate hearings: “What did the President [Nixon know, and when did he know it?”
Today’s reflection on this Gospel selection demonstrates that Scripture does not easily yield a satisfying answer to such a question. That should be no surprise.
We are Christians, after all, by faith, and not by force of irrefutable evidence.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to find out more.
**From Saint Louis University