ColumnsSunday’s Word

John the Baptist comes with an ‘axe’

December 8, 2019


Is 11:1-10

A shoot from the stump of Jesse

Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17

Justice shall flower in his days

Rom 15:4-9

Scriptures written for our instruction

Mt 3:1-12

John the Baptist comes with an “axe” 120819.cfm

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Today is the first of the two Advent Sundays featuring John the Baptist. John is identified as the person named by the passage from Isaiah 40:3 — “A voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”

There are voices in the desert. There will be others, such as that of Satan (4:1-11). He also has a program for Jesus, which Jesus refuses. While Jesus will rebut Satan, he will, however, accept and follow the tradition of John. We see this immediately in the way Matthew shows Jesus’ opening words as repeating those of John: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (3:2; 4:17). Only Matthew’s Gospel does this.

But even more telling is that Jesus adopts and continues the program that the Baptist has set out for him. This is seen especially in John’s metaphors of crisis, on display today. John warns: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” And then: “Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:7, 9). In a cluster of forceful images, John warns of the coming judgement and calls for a decision.

In the early chapters of the Gospel, Jesus is heard saying similar things. Four passages show Jesus echoing John’s retributive language. In 7:15-20, toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns against false prophets, and employs the images of fruit-bearing trees, with the barren among them cast into the fire. In 12:33-34; 13:39-43, 49-50; and 23:33, the images of barren fruit trees cast into the fire, brood of vipers and gnashing of teeth bring the harsh language of John forward into the Gospel, with its urgent call to judgment and making the hard decision.

But something else happens that takes Jesus away from John in a new direction, one that eventually overtakes his message. When he sends out the apostles on mission, two by two, Jesus continues the theme of announcing the kingdom, “As you go, make this proclamation: ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand,’” but immediately adds, “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons”  (10:7-8). For Jesus, “preaching the Gospel of the kingdom” (4:33; 9:35; 24:14) is associated with accounts of healing (4:23; 9:35; 10:7). Where John expects a judgment, Jesus speaks of healings. Healings stand opposite violence, as repair does to destruction. So John’s theme of judgment continues, but qualified by a counter-­theme of healing and making whole.

A more subtle change that Jesus introduces into John’s messaging might not easily be noticed. John is preaching an impending judgment. One is coming soon, he says, who will bring the crisis to a head. But Jesus, even while using the same imagery and language, introduces a note of deferral. For Jesus, the time of judgment is not immediate. We see this in the endings of the parables, which in Matthew’s version speaks of “the fiery furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (13:42, 50). But this will not come right away. The parable of the weeds and wheat make this point. “Let them grow together until harvest” (13:29-30, 39). God is to be the judge, not the apostles and the disciples of Jesus. To John, these changes come as a surprise. But that is a story for next week.

The perspectives shared here are from “Banished Messiah,” my book on ­Matthew. I will continue to share its ideas as the year of Matthew progresses from here.

For reflection: Jesus builds on John’s message, and changes it.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.