With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Voice in the Wilderness

Lectio: (Mt 3:1-6)

Jesus' ministry begins with that of John in the desert of Judea. John's message is "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." In Matthew, "Kingdom of Heaven" or "the Heavens" is equivalent to Kingdom of God: "Heaven" used as a substitute for the revealed name of God out of reverence. These are the words Jesus Himself will take up in His preaching: the exact words. But when Jesus preaches them, they will no longer mean simply that the Kingdom is coming; they will mean that "the Kingdom of Heaven is in your midst." The Kingdom of Heaven is present through the presence of Jesus. The Kingdom of Heaven/God refers to the rectified rule of God over the people- the fulfillment of one of the central dynamics in all of salvation history. It marks the universal obedience to the Word of God and God's triumph over evil and death. The notion of the Kingdom in Jewish apocalyptic literature (and perhaps in the writings of the Essenes) was one in which the coming of the Kingdom is marked by a radical judgment separating the righteous and the repentant from the sinners and the unrepentant (the "winnowing fan"). This is John's view of the Kingdom's coming, linking Him with the ascetic Qumran community, which had retreated into the Judean desert.
Matthew sees in John the fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3, which he has re-interpretted. It is more accurately rendered: "A voice cries out: in the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!" The context of this prophecy is a description of the return of the exiles from Babylon to the Holy City. The Lord leads them and makes their Path easy. The passage deals principally with the promise of salvation and restoration for Israel, linking these with the revelation of God's glory. The word of God from the prophet's tongue is one of consolation (Is 40:1): her "service" (slavery and exile) is over, "her guilt is expiated"(v.2). God's glory will only be revealed in the fulfillment of His promise in leading His chastised people back home, to the promised land (v.5: "for the mouth of the Lord has spoken"; cf. Nm 23:19); altering the very landscape in doing so (v.4). There is also the imagery of God revealed as the Shepherd of His flock (v. 11), gathering His lambs and leading them with care: an image Jesus later claimed for Himself in His generous care and his "leading" the lost sheep to forgiveness of their sins (cf. Mt 2:6, which is prophecy; Jn 10:11-16, in which the image is connected with His sacrifice; and Mk 6:34).

Overall, does it seem that Matthew is justified in seeing the Baptist as a fulfillment of this prophecy? To do so is also to 1) link God's Glory/revelation with His expiation of Israel's sins and their restoration; and 2) Identify Jesus as/with God's restorative action and thus the site of His glorification. In other words, as Levering and Dauphinais have argued, to identify the coming of Jesus with the true restoration after the exile: as king and temple in the truest sense.[1] Much of the symbolism throughout the first part of Matthew’s narrative points to Jesus’ coming as the time of Israel’s true restoration that the post-exilic Jews had been waiting for. In this context, it seems Matthew has resituated the Isaiah prophecy, or re-contextualized it, if in fact his presupposition is an identification of Christ with the promised restoration of king and temple. In light of this, the preparation of that restoration, the Jew’s path to fulfillment in the desert is one who “makes straight” the way for the restoring work of God. In terms of Jesus’ ministry, this can only be John. The image of the desert, and his preaching, his prophecy; his likely association with the Essenes, who believed themselves to be the true remnant of God’s people after the exile, trying to preserve a lifestyle of righteousness in the desert; John’s baptism, which can be tied to the expiation of sins that precedes and foregrounds the people’s restoration in Isaiah; interesting: Isaiah uses the images of “grass”/”flowers of the field” for the people, and John uses the imagery of wheat and chaff.

Another important element of Matthew’s understanding of the role of the Baptist is the identification with Elijah; an identification that Jesus Himself makes (Mt 11:14). Matthew thus, it seems, attempts to develop a conception of the Baptist’s role in salvation history from the teaching that Jesus passed on to the disciples. This central identification between John and Elijah may be in the background of his exegesis of Isaiah 40:3. John’s clothing of camel’s hair and a leather belt imitates the dress of Elijah in 2 Kgs 1:8- “’wearing a hairy garment,’ they replied, ‘with a leather girdle about his loins.’” A sign of the ascetical and prophetic calling: John is in the tradition of prophecy, of the Tishbite, a “man of God.” Apparently, the expectation of Elijah’s return from heaven to prepare Israel for the final manifestation of God’s Kingdom was widespread, and according to Matthew this is what was fulfilled in John’s ministry (Mt 17:11-13). As noted, this is Jesus’ understanding of John and his ministry. Where did this expectation come from, I wonder? How was it so widespread? Mt 17:10: “why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”

One source seems to be Malachi: “Lo, I will send you Elijah, the prophet, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers…”(Mal 3:23-24). Jesus seems to interpret Malachi figuratively, whereas the Jewish tradition has seen the return of Elijah as literal. Perhaps what Jesus sees fulfilled in John is the return of the spirit of Elijah in John. For Elijah passed on his spirit to Elisha, and it seems that John, in his similarities to the Tishbite, has received his spirit (or at least the “logic” of John within the narrative can be read as such consistently).[2]

This chapter of Malachi is absolutely central! It begins: “Lo, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me…”(Mal 3:11). The Lord says that the messenger of the covenant will appear suddenly. Throughout, we find the same understanding of the Lord’s coming that John has (restoration of Judah:v.4; expiation/purification: v.2-3; proper worships and intimacy with the Lord; justice: v.3-5). It is about judgment, the winnowing fan; justice and the “burning” of the unrepentant. The messenger of Malachi 3 brings a “refiner’s fire,” “blazing like an oven.” Verse 19: “The day is coming that will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch (cf. Mt 3:10); the wicked are “stubble”(chaff?), they will become “ashes”(v.21). But this fire will be for the just, those who “fear the Lord and trust in His name”(v.16), not a burning fire, but rather a cleansing one: “refining them like gold or silver”(v.3). It is a “sun of justice with its healing rays”(v.20).

Again, the “day of the Lord” signifies when His definitive action and reign (Kingdom) are marked by a judgment of radical justice, in which the wicked are burned up and the faithful become God’s “own special possession”- “they shall be mine…on the day that I take action”(v.17). He will have “compassion on them, as a man has compassion on his son who serves him”(v.17b). I need not point out how ripe this verse is as an image for the Son and the sonship he brings to share. There are just connections everywhere. For Matthew and John, the “messenger of the covenant” in Malachi is Elijah, but truly John (according to the “logic” of Elijah’s spirit or a more figurative rendering of the prophecy); and the “Lord” is Christ, who comes after the messenger has prepared the way. John’s baptism is one of purification and one meant to “turn the hearts”(v.24). Jesus’ is, in contrast, one of “Spirit and fire:” which may refer to the dual effect that the coming of the Kingdom has on the just and the wicked respectively. Again, Christ Himself is seen as the coming of God’s action and reign/Kingdom, and thus His true restoration of the people and His revelation of Glory (Is 40:3). It maybe that both John and Matthew read Isaiah 40:3 using Malachi 3 as the hermeneutical key. Malachi allows Matthew to link more directly Elijah and John, and thus John as the one who was sent to prepare the way (as Elijah).

Sirach 48:10-12 also gives testament to a tradition that believed Elijah would be sent to prepare the way for God’s coming: “to put an end to wrath before the day of the Lord”(v.10). There is here the same task of turning back the hearts of fathers toward their sons (also v.10). Sirach may be drawing directly from Malachi, which predates it by about 200 years. It seems that the wisdom tradition confirms this belief about Elijah’s coming.

The whole region was going out to receive John’s baptism. Ritual washing was practiced by various groups in Palestine between 150 BC and AD 250. The Essenes also supposedly practiced a purificatory washing, which leads scholars to conclude that John was a member of the Qumran community. This baptism involved repentance; the enactment of what John was calling for. This was the means of preparation for the Kingdom which was at hand, because it required acknowledgment of one’s sins. The response of the Jewish people to John’s call suggests that he spoke with the authority of a “man of God,” and that his baptism was reconcilable/justified within the Jewish tradition.

(More to follow…)

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

[1] Dauphinais, Michael and Levering, Matthew. Holy People, Holy Land: A Theological Introduction to the Bible. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2005. p.138-140.

[2] 2 Kgs 2; cf. Dauphinais and Levering, p. 142-143


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