Thursday, November 8, 2007

Thursdays with Luke #24

Jesus and John the Baptist

Luke 7:18-35

This story about Jesus and John the Baptist comes after the accounts of Jesus healing the centurion’s servant and Jesus raising the widow’s son at Nain and before the account of Jesus forgiving a sinful woman. So when we read in v. 18 that “the disciples of John reported all these things to him” the immediate reference would be to the two preceding stories. Something in what was reported to John prompted him to send two of his disciples to question Jesus. In Israel the testimony of two witnesses was required for proper verification in a legal proceeding. The question that they asked was “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (vv. 19-20).

Why did John ask this question?

Some have suggested that John’s time in prison had caused him to become discouraged and his question would then reflect his concern that the kingdom was in fact not being inaugurated. There is no evidence of this in the text.

Let’s look carefully at what the text does say. First, we see that John’s disciples reported Jesus’ acts of compassion to their teacher. Second, we see John pose his question about whether or not Jesus was the Messiah. Third, we see Jesus first answer the question by giving a living illustration: he healed folks. Fourth, we see Jesus give a verbal answer: “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (vv. 22-23).

This leads us to the conclusion that what lay behind John’s question was the question of whether or not these were the kinds of things that the Messiah would do. Fred Craddock puts it well.

The issue is not whether or not one believes that Jesus really is doing these things; the issue is, Are these the things a Messiah does? It is not one’s view of Jesus that may need adjustment but rather one’s view of a Messiah…. And now most pointedly the question arises, Can someone who gives time and attention to the dead, the very poor, the outcast, the acknowledged violator of the law, and the diseased by God’s Messiah? John has to decide in the same way all of us decide, on the basis of witnesses reporting what they have seen and heard. (Fred Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Commentary, p. 100).

That seems to be John’s issue. Perhaps he had to do some adjusting of his expectations of what the Messiah was to do. Most Jewish folks would have expected a political, militaristic, triumphalistic Messiah. John expected a Messiah who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire and who would bring about God’s judgment. Did Jesus’ ministry of compassion fit that model? “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me,” Jesus said. Make up your own mind, Jesus said. But understand that what I am doing is God’s way. Perhaps the judgment comes in how you decide for or against Jesus, in whether or not you can see God’s ways in Jesus’ compassion and love.

On the other hand, it’s awfully hard to pin God down, isn’t it? That is the conclusion to which the next sections of this passage lead us. After John’s disciples left Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John. What is Jesus’ motivation here? Is it to make clear that John’s questions don’t negate his ministry? Is it to clarify John’s proper place in God’s plan? Is it to make the point that God speaks in different ways through different people and that some won’t listen no matter what?

Jesus uses two images to make the point that John was no weak or soft person. He didn’t live in luxury in a palace wearing soft clothes; as we know from the other gospels he wore clothing made of camel hair. He was not a “reed shaken by the wind,” which apparently means that his message was not changed for the sake of convenience or popularity. People went to see him not because he was pleasing; they went to see him because he was a prophet. And he was, Jesus affirms, more than a prophet, because he was the fulfillment of the OT prophecy of a forerunner to the Messiah (v. 27).

Jesus’ statement in v. 28 is interesting: “I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” This statement does not mean that John was not in the kingdom of God. It is simply the fact that the ministry of Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of God in a new way and that John was the precursor, the forerunner, to that. We also see the theme here that true greatness is found in the “least,” in those who may not be so “out front” or “in the spotlight” or so “obvious” in their works. Vv. 29-30 show that some, namely the common people including such sinners as the tax collectors, had accepted the ministry of John as valid while others, namely the scribes and Pharisees, had not.

Vv. 31-35 continue to deal with those who rejected the ministries of John and of Jesus. Jesus earlier challenged John to believe that he was the Messiah on the basis of his works of compassion (which were also to be seen as the fulfillment of the Scripture that Jesus read in the Nazareth synagogue). The word of the Lord was also communicated through John. These verses point out that some will never be pleased with what they hear and will always find a reason not to believe. If the messenger and/or the message fail to meet their expectations they will shut it out rather than being open to the manifold ways in which God speaks. Discernment is necessary and those who are in tune with God’s wisdom will hear and understand (v. 35).

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