Tag Archives: John the Baptist

When to break the rules

Matthew, chapters 14 and 15

“His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.” (chapter 14 verse 12)

Was it a headless body they reverently gathered up and buried? The head, you recall, had been presented on a gruesome platter to the daughter of Herodias.

Clearly John and Jesus had been close. John’s baptism had been a decisive moment for Jesus. After it, he withdrew to the desert to discern the direction he should take.

Both men upset the Jewish religious authorities. They both challenged the way things were done. They both based their challenge on a fresh understanding of the Hebrew scriptures. In chapter 15 of his gospel, Matthew shows us why the Pharisees and Sadducees got upset. For them outward observance had become more important than inner truth. Making sure you’ve got clean hands is less important, much less important, than having a clean heart, says Jesus (chapter 15 verses 17 to 20).

Then, as if to show that a Gentile understands this truth better than some Pharisees and Sadducees, Matthew gives us a story about a Canaanite woman (chapter 15 verses 21 to 28). Apparently Jesus had to be persuaded to respond to her. “Send her away,” say his disciples, “for she keeps shouting after us.” Jesus appears to agree with them. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Even more startling, Matthew has Jesus add, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

Can Jesus really have said that? Remember, until Paul was converted the earliest Jesus Movement was a purely Jewish affair based around Peter and the original disciples. But Jesus had been willing to sit and eat with social outcasts: hardly the action of someone sticking to religious rules! No, I think we have here echoes of the controversy, stirred up by Paul’s ministry to Gentiles, about the future of the Jesus Movement. Was it to be a purely Jewish affair or did the teaching of Jesus contain the seeds of a universal truth crossing boundaries and freeing us to acknowledge the presence of God in every human being, whatever their beliefs and regulations? There’s nothing wrong with regulations, provided they don’t dominate the heart. There’s nothing wrong with the way in which every major religion expresses the truth. We all need signposts. The trouble starts when we mistake the signpost for the inwardly experienced reality.

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How long, O Lord, how long?

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.