Sunday, December 4, 2022

JTB: Faithful Inquirer

Below is a rough translation and some initial comments regarding Matthew 11: 2-11, the Revised Common Lectionary reading for the 3rd Sunday of Advent.

Note the reference to Jesus’ disciples in v.1: Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

2   δὲ Ἰωάννης ἀκούσας ἐν τῷ δεσμωτηρίῳ τὰ ἔργα τοῦ Χριστοῦ πέμψας 
διὰ τῶν μαθητῶν αὐτοῦ 
Yet John having heard in the prison the works of Christ, having sent by means of two of his disciples,
ἀκούσας: AAPart nms, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf  2) to hear  2b) to attend to, consider what is or has been said
πέμψας: AAPart nms, πέμπω, 1) to send  1a) to bid a thing to be carried to one  1b) to send (thrust or insert) a thing into another 

3 εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Σὺ εἶ  ἐρχόμενος  ἕτερον προσδοκῶμεν;
said to him, “Are you the one who comes or are we to await another?”
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain 
προσδοκῶμεν: PAI 1p, προσδοκάω, 1) to expect (whether in thought, in hope, or in fear) 2) to look for, wait for 
1. After two participles in v.2, we arrive at the main verb in v. 3, “said.”
2. The definitions for προσδοκάω above almost read like descriptions of the season of Advent: To expect (whether in thought, in hope, or in fear) 2) to look for, wait for .
3. John has heard about “the works of Christ” from prison, but it is difficult to tell either what he heard or why that report has raised the question his disciples will ask in v.3. Is the report disappointing? Was he expecting a revolution that looks more like a revolution? Is the report affirming and this delegation is simply confirming what John believes? Of course, as distant readers we want to assume that Jesus and John are always on the same page, because the Spirit seems to be directing both of them in ways that we imagine to be profoundly clear and perfectly synchronized. But, this episode allows us to see John and Jesus in a much less magical light – there are questions to answer, doubts to address, points to ponder.
4. Jesus lists what his works have been in v.5, causing me to wonder if that list is what John had heard, a supplement to what John had heard, or simply a literary device by which the narrator enables us to know the substance behind the question from John and Jesus’ answer.

 4 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς  Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Πορευθέντες ἀπαγγείλατε 
Ἰωάννῃ  ἀκούετε καὶ βλέπετε: 
And having answered, Jesus said to them, “Having gone tell John what you see and hear;
ἀποκριθεὶς: APPart nms, ἀποκρίνομαι, 1) to give an answer to a question proposed, to answer 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain  
Πορευθέντες: APPart nmp, πορεύομαι, 1) to lead over, carry over, transfer 
ἀπαγγείλατε: AAImpv 2pl, ἀπαγγέλλω, 1) to bring tidings (from a person or a thing), bring word, report
ἀκούετε: PAI 2p, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf
βλέπετε: PAI 2p, βλέπω, 1) to see, discern, of the bodily eye
1. (Side note): The aorist participle Πορευθέντες (having gone) is the same word and tense in Mt.28:19, the so-called Great Commission. There, it is typically translated as an imperative, “Go and preach …” but here and there it should be translated as a participle. I see a lot of parallels between the commission of Mt. 11:4 and Mt. 28:19.
2. It is interesting that Jesus does not simply respond to the disciples’ question, but makes them witnesses. They are to tell what they themselves have seen and heard.
3. It is also interesting that Jesus does not say to John’s disciples, “You are following the wrong master. Leave him and follow me because I’m the only true way.” Even though there seems to be some pointedness in the gospels over how to name John and his ministry best – and it always shows subordination of John’s ministry to Jesus’ ministry – there is not a decided effort on Jesus’ behalf to wrest disciples away from John. I find that a promising approach for how to think about other inspired religious leaders.   

5 τυφλοὶ ἀναβλέπουσιν καὶ χωλοὶ περιπατοῦσιν, λεπροὶ καθαρίζονται καὶ 
κωφοὶ ἀκούουσιν, καὶ νεκροὶ ἐγείρονται καὶ πτωχοὶ εὐαγγελίζονται: 
Blind persons see and the lame persons walk, leprous persons are cleansed and deaf persons hear, and dead persons are raised and poor persons are evangelized;
ἀναβλέπουσιν: PAI 3p, ἀναβλέπω, 1) to look up 2) to recover (lost) sight 
περιπατοῦσιν: PAI 3p, περιπατέω, 1) to walk
καθαρίζονται: PPI 3p, καθαρίζω, 1) to make clean, cleanse
ἀκούουσιν: PAI 3p, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing
ἐγείρονται: PPI 3p, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise
εὐαγγελίζονται: PPI 3p, εὐαγγελίζω, 1) to bring good news, to announce glad tidings
1. This description of Jesus’ ministry is described with both active and passive verbs. Perhaps that is due to the nature of the verbs themselves, but perhaps it is also indicative of how ministry works. Sometimes ministry is empowering others to do; other times it is doing for those who cannot.
2. I think it is important for biblical translators/interpreters to do our work with both a sense of responsibility to the text and an ethical responsibility for the way the text inscribes reality. To wit, I am trying to avoid reducing persons to their condition by saying “blind persons” instead of “the blind,” etc. Those choices are not driven by my own agenda, but because of the very human way that Jesus approaches healing and exorcism stories. It is the lives that are affected that mark both the tragedy of the malady and the joy of the healing.  
3. And, of course, we would be remiss on this third Sunday of Advent not to connect this text with Isaiah’s vision of renewal in Isaiah 35:1-10. Part of what it means that God “will come and save you” is that “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

6 καὶ μακάριός ἐστιν ὃς ἐὰν μὴ σκανδαλισθῇ ἐν ἐμοί. 
And blessed is the one who would not be scandalized in me.
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
σκανδαλισθῇ: APSubj 3s, σκανδαλίζω, 1) to put a stumbling block or impediment in the way, upon which  another may trip and fall, metaph. to offend.
1. This verse indicates that whatever it was that prompted John to send his disciples, there was and edge to it. Something about what John had heard from prison was potentially a scandal/stumbling block.
2. When we look at the list of Jesus’ works in v.5, it is hard to imagine that there would be any cause for scandal/stumbling block in it, if it were simply a matter of making sick, demonized, and dead people feel all better. I wonder, however, if what we often imagine to be ‘medical miracle’ stories are better understood as ‘resistance’ stories. Since illness or disability or even premature death were often described as acts of punishment by God, maybe by curing them in the name of God, Jesus is re-describing them. To be sure, it would be another 1,500 years before they are atomized as strictly medical issues. If, however, illness and wellness are matters of communal health, rather than simply medical issues, the scandal/stumbling block would be the implied criticism of the conditions that have allowed such things to exist. By performing these works, Jesus may proclaiming be two things:
A. The lame, blind, poor, etc. are not cursed by God, but beloved by God.
B. The cause of such maladies are not God’s wrath, but something else –
     Maybe a lack of community, maybe the hardship of imperial oppression,
     or maybe some other holistic way of envisioning health.
To make those claims by healing, etc., would be a cause for scandal.

7  Τούτων δὲ πορευομένων ἤρξατο  Ἰησοῦς λέγειν τοῖς ὄχλοις περὶ Ἰωάννου, 
Τί ἐξήλθατε εἰς τὴν ἔρημον θεάσασθαι; κάλαμον ὑπὸ ἀνέμου σαλευόμενον;
Yet as these were leaving, Jesus began to say to the crowds concerning John, “What did you go into the wilderness to watch? A reed shaken by a wind?
πορευομένων: PMPart gmp, πορεύομαι, 1) to lead over, carry over, transfer  1a) to pursue the journey on which one has entered, to continue on  one's journey 
ἤρξατο: AMI 3s, ἄρχω, 1) to be chief, to lead, to rule, to begin
λέγειν: PAInf, , λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain 
ἐξήλθατε: AAI 2p, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of  1a) with mention of the place out of which one goes, or the  point from which he departs 
θεάσασθαι: AMInf, θεάομαι, 1) to behold, look upon, view attentively, contemplate (often  used of public shows)
σαλευόμενον: PPPart asm, σαλεύω, 1) a motion produced by winds, storms, waves, etc
1. Where did the crowds come from?
2. The noun θεά-ομαι (to see) transliterates to thea-(ter). And now I am on a rabbit hole journey of imagining the people going out to see and hear John as a first century blockbuster movie or online streaming phenomenon. What did we just watch? Did we have eyes to see it? 
3. The phrase “a reed shaken by the wind” seems to have some significance that Jesus and his audience understood. A quick overview of the word “reed” in the OT shows some interesting possibilities that call for more in depth study: II Kings 18:21 refers to Pharaoh/Egypt as “that broken reed of a staff,” and that verse is repeated word-for-word in Isaiah 36:6. is Ezekiel 29:6-7 stays with the analogy of a reed as a staff when describing Egypt. The purpose here is not a staff for support like a walking stick, but a staff for bruising the shoulders of others, like a caning. That is, in fact, how the Roman soldiers use a reed to torture Jesus in Matthew’s crucifixion story, in 27:29-30.
Isaiah 42:3 is a reference that would be familiar to many persons from Advent readings, but takes a slightly different direction, describing the the coming one’s actions as “a bruised reed he will not break.” I clearly need a better sense of the functions that reeds played both as a part of the landscape and as harvested products put to some kind of use. 

 8 ἀλλὰ τί ἐξήλθατε ἰδεῖν; ἄνθρωπον ἐν μαλακοῖς ἠμφιεσμένον; ἰδοὺ οἱ τὰ 
μαλακὰ φοροῦντες ἐν τοῖς οἴκοις τῶν βασιλέων εἰσίν.
But what did you go out to behold? A man who has been clothed in soft garments? Behold, those who dress in soft garments are in the house of kings.
ἐξήλθατε: AAI 2p, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of  1a) with mention of the place out of which one goes, or the  point from which he departs 
ἰδεῖν: AAInf, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes
ἠμφιεσμένον: PPPart ams, ἀμφιέννυμι, 1) to put on, to clothe 
μαλακοῖς & μαλακὰ : μαλακός, 1) soft, soft to the touch  2) metaph. in a bad sense  2a) effeminate  2a1) of a catamite  2a2) of a boy kept for homosexual relations with a man  2a3) of a male who submits his body to unnatural lewdness  2a4) of a male prostitute 
φοροῦντες: PAPart nmp, φορέω, 1) to bear constantly, wear   1a) of clothing, garments, armour
1. At least in the minds of the folks producing Greek-English lexicons, the words μαλακοῖς & μαλακὰ come from the word μαλακός, which has sexual implications as some secondary possibilities: 1) soft, soft to the touch 2) metaph. in a bad sense 2a) effeminate 2a1) of a catamite  2a2) of a boy kept for homosexual relations with a man  2a3) of a male who submits his body to unnatural lewdness  2a4) of a male prostitute. Maybe μαλακός is a 1st century feathered boa.
I do not know if μαλακός carries any sexual connotation in this verse or if it was more symbolic of rich and opulent lifestyles that would be ridiculous out in the wilderness and was the opposite of how John is described.  
2. The word “behold” (ἰδοὺ) is rooted in the same word ἰδεῖν that, earlier in this verse and also in v.9, is translated “to see” in most translations. I will translate it “to behold” there to show the repetition. 

 9 ἀλλὰ τί ἐξήλθατε ἰδεῖν; προφήτην; ναί, λέγω ὑμῖν, καὶ περισσότερον προφήτου.
But what did you go out to behold? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and exceedingly more than a prophet.
ἐξήλθατε: AAI 2p, ἐξέρχομαι, 1) to go or come forth of  1a) with mention of the place out of which one goes, or the  point from which he departs 
ἰδεῖν: AAInf, ὁράω, 1) to see with the eyes
περισσότερον: ams περισσότερος, 1) exceeding some number or measure or rank or need 
1. Again with "behold." Now I am curious about the relationship between θεάομαι in v.7 above (see note 2) and beholding in vv 8-9 (and 10!). It all feels quite significant. 

 10 οὗτός ἐστιν περὶ οὗ γέγραπται, Ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου, ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου ἔμπροσθέν σου. 
This is the one about whom it is written, “Behold I am sending my messenger before your face, who will prepared your way before you.
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
γέγραπται: PerfPI 3s, γράφω, 1) to write, with reference to the form of the letters
ἀποστέλλω: PAI 1s, ἀποστέλλω, 1) to order (one) to go to a place appointed
κατασκευάσει: FAI 3s, κατασκευάζω, 1) to furnish, equip, prepare, make ready.
1. Something about being the messenger and preparing the way of the coming one makes John “exceedingly more than a prophet.”
2. Behold! 

11ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, οὐκ ἐγήγερται ἐν γεννητοῖς γυναικῶν μείζων Ἰωάννου 
τοῦ βαπτιστοῦ:  δὲ μικρότερος ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τῶν οὐρανῶν μείζων αὐτοῦ 
Truly I say to you, there has not been risen among those born of women [one] greater than John the baptizer; yet the smallest in the reign of the heavens is greater than he.
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain 
ἐγήγερται: PPI 3s, ἐγείρω, 1) to arouse, cause to rise  1a) to arouse from sleep, to awake
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present 
1. The last phrase of this verse feels added, as if someone on the “Jesus” side of the “Who is greater, Jesus or John?” debate felt as if John were getting a little too much love from the first phrase. Taken strictly, this phrase implies that John is not himself part of the ‘reign of the heavens.’
2. ‘Reign of the heavens” is typically translated as the ‘kingdom of heaven.’ Just as Matthew does substitutes ‘heaven’ where others use ‘God,’ I tend to substitute ‘realm’ where others use ‘kingdom.’ It’s a thing for me that you are free to ignore.

My Ramblings:
So, what just happened? Messengers from John some asking a curious question, based on the news that John had heard while in prison. Jesus first responds in a way that describes his ministry, then turns his attention to clarifying John’s ministry for ‘the crowd.’ Since I know of no active “Church of the true Savior John the Baptist” congregations in my area, I would be comfortable focusing entirely on the first portion of this pericope (vv.2-6) and save the last portion (vv.7-11) for a ‘Feast of St. John the Baptist’ occasion.

It seems important that Jesus’ works are not simply awe-inspiring or charitable gifts – they can potentially cause a scandal. I suggest that we have to get beyond our strictly medical understanding of maladies of mind and body to genuinely appreciate this text. (Contrary to how many people interpret Bultmann, I do not believe 1st century folks took their mythologies literally. But, I do believe his ‘demythologization’ argument is critical in the face of biblical literalism, which does try to take 1st century mythological language literally.) 

I do not believe that we have to forfeit what science has taught us and revert to some kind of magical view of maladies. I do believe, however, that our strictly medical approach to maladies is narrow and that there is ancient wisdom in the NT’s way of speaking of them. The relationship between conditions of poverty; the effects of oppression; the role of community/ex-communication; as well as one’s own self-perception – which is what the conversations around the healing stories address – all seem to me to be part of the complex of wholeness, along with DNA, viruses, immune systems, etc. 

Perhaps the work of Christ is a way of resisting any system – whether imperial, political, medical, social, or religious – that de-humanizes and de-communalizes life. For many years I have had a definition of sin as “anything that is destructive of life and community.” I think that definition and this description of what the reign of God through Christ looks like are very complementary.


  1. Safe journey!!! I eagerly look forward to your post EVERY week, but will be patient until you settle in somewhere else. I, too, am shifting around these days, so, again, safe journeys to us both. DerLovingItToo!! Pastor Richard

  2. Blessings on your journey as well, Pastor Richard!

  3. I love your posts! I just want to shout in agreement - thank you for making things so very clear (especially the point about scandal/offence), a great explanation of the Girardion angle. Much appreciated.

    1. Thanks, Ruth! That's very encouraging. Glad to be on these journeys with you.

  4. Dear Mark, like Ruth I really enjoy your posts, you often present a new perspective for me to explore. I currently minister in aged care and your comments on verse 6 provide me with a new connection for the stories of Christmas and the physical and mental decline in ageing. God bless you. Jeni

  5. 1. John could have taken offense at a ministry of healing vs. overthrowing the establishment. Remembering the 60's debates.
    2. Reed issue: Ptolemy's entrance to the temple in 3 Maccabees 22: He (God) shook him on this side and that as a reed is shaken by the wind, so that he lay helpless on the ground and, besides being paralyzed in his limbs, was unable even to speak, since he was smitten by a righteous judgment.

  6. And - it was hearing of the works that raised the question in John's mind. As in, why are you doing that instead of breaking me out of here?


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