Matthew’s gospel chapter 11.
Jesus and John the Baptist – how well did they get on together? We’ll never know for certain because we’ve only got Matthew and the other gospel writers to go on and they weren’t interested in biography. But look at what pops up in this passage at the beginning of chapter 11 of Matthew’s gospel:
“….no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence [or, ‘has been coming violently’] and the violent take it by force.” (verses 11-15)
Isn’t that intriguing? What can it mean? No serious student of the Bible is sure but this fool of a contemplative Christian is going to rush in with an idea. I wonder if there’s a clue in some verses at the end of this chapter?
“I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” (verse 25)
“Come to me all that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (verses 28-30)
John the Baptist was an ascetic. He lived in the desert, wore rough clothes and had a restricted diet of locusts and honey: a pretty severe character I would have thought. Jesus was different: enjoying himself, eating and drinking with a bunch of social misfits. There’s a long history of people being severe on themselves in their persistent (sometimes desperate) search for the truth. The Buddha, for example, spent many austere years before he was enlightened. Christian saints have fasted, flagellated and forced themselves into what they hoped was an acceptable state of being before God. Might this be what is meant here by violent people taking the kingdom of God by force? Perhaps Jesus could see what John the Baptist was getting at but thought there was a gentle, more direct route to take.
George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community in Scotland, clearly wasn’t happy with traditional spirituality. In his book, Only One Way Left, he painted a picture of a series of individual souls, laboriously climbing ladders to heaven where “a perpetual concert was in progress.” He pointed out that there were two routes from his front door to his front garden gate. He could leave by the back door and circumnavigate the globe, or……. you’ve guessed it. He could take the direct route. Maybe it was no coincidence that George MacLeod, like Jesus, began his ministry among misfits and outcasts – in the 1940s slums of Glasgow. There would have been no point in telling people like that to restrict their diet and wear rough clothes if they wanted to enter the kingdom of God. They didn’t have much choice about things like that.
Slowly, over the last hundred years more and more people have been discovering the direct route. I should say ‘re-discovering’ the route. It’s been available ever since Jesus pointed it out. We lost sight of it pretty quickly, because people expected the return of Jesus in glory to change the world: the kingdom of God postponed. Fortunately, over the centuries there has always been someone saying, ‘look, look, can’t you see? It’s here, now!’ God, whatever we might mean by that word, isn’t over there somewhere. God is here, now, within. The momentum of this re-discovering is increasing, and it’s not a route that we are finding. There isn’t anywhere to go. That way of thinking dumps us back in the old ways of the postponed kingdom. In a recent lecture Fr. Vincent MacNamara said, “The beatitudes don’t have to be imported into our lives.” Nothing has to be imported. Everything is waiting to be discovered as we allow ourselves to become aware of the sacred beauty in the depths of each one of us. To be sure, that process is usually a long and often painful one but the yoke that Jesus spoke of gives rest to our weary souls as we lay down the burden of being harsh on ourselves and others.