This week, we begin our readings with a doubting John. Imprisoned and soon to meet a grim demise, John the Baptist has a niggling question of Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Earlier in Matthew, John baptizes Jesus and proclaims himself unworthy to carry his sandals. But some seeds of doubt are growing: Jesus isn’t exactly acting the way John the Baptist expected. John had prophesied a messiah who would baptize with Spirit and fire. Jesus’ ministry—so far—has been a bit more low-key, with remarkable healings and preaching and teachings to be sure but not with the grand display of power and authority that many expected of the long-awaited messiah.
Here we are again, reading about how Jesus doesn’t fit the mold. He is the Messiah, come to save the world, but not in the way the world wants. But Jesus doesn’t chastise John’s doubts but rather praises his longtime friend, saying John is no ordinary prophet but one long devoted to preparing the way.
While Jesus only has words of praise for John, he is frustrated with many in the crowds and towns. Their fickleness is akin to Goldilocks, who finds one chair too hard and another too soft. John “came neither eating nor drinking,” and they complain he has a demon, while Jesus came eating and drinking, and they proclaim he is a glutton and drunkard. To be never satisfied is a grave burden indeed.
Yet despite his obvious frustration, Jesus transitions and (figuratively) opens his arms with a beautiful invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Today, as my state announced that schools are closed for the rest of the year, I will write these words on my heart.
As we move into chapter 12, we hear a common theme about interpretation of the law. We’ve heard from religious leaders throughout scripture, and we hear the same words today from biblical literalists, both intent on standing firm in the letter of the law. Yet Jesus urges a new understanding of the spirit of the law: the sabbath is made for people, not vice versa. In this New Covenant, even our understanding of law is turned upside down by mercy and grace.
Instead of continuing to argue with the religious leaders, Jesus departs. The crowds follow, and Jesus cures them—but asks them not to tell anyone. This can be hard for modern Christians to understand. Such humility is rare in a post-every-triumph culture, but Jesus is the model of the humble servant. A commentary from the InterVarsity Press expresses the sentiment in this way: “May we who fancy ourselves wise choose to learn from the humble.”
Matthew 13 offers the third of the five discourses in the gospel. One parable after another rolls off of Jesus’ tongue as he talks about the kingdom of heaven, first outside at the lake with both the disciples and the crowd, and then inside the house with his disciples. Many of these parables paint the kingdom of heaven with familiar brushes, using allegories of farming and baking. These parables continue to resonate with listeners today—I even have a necklace with a mustard seed as a reminder of the power of even the smallest amount of faith. And there’s a reason yeast is in short supply today. We know, as did Jesus’ followers, that a pinch can transform simple ingredients into bread.
We end our readings for the week with two powerful stories on opposite ends of the spectrum. First, we see extreme greed, jealousy, and selfishness among Herod and his family. Salome, the daughter of Herodias, dances for Herod and then does her mother’s bidding, asking the ruler for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. He complies.
This gruesome display stands in stark contrast to the next passage. Upon hearing about the murder of his friend, Jesus withdraws to a deserted place to be by himself. But the crowds follow. Jesus sets aside his own grief and has “compassion for them” and cures their sick. But he doesn’t stop there. As day slips into night, Jesus recognizes that the people are hungry. The disciples, being practical, urge him to send the crowds away. After all, they have only five loaves and two fish. But Jesus takes the offerings, looks up to heaven, and then blesses them. And all ate and were filled. Thanks be to God.