Truly I tell you, among those born of women 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, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!
The world of the Bible is a very violent place. From the days when Cain murdered Abel, violence was endemic in the lives of the Bible’s people. The pages of Scripture are marked by that violence – with their record of seemingly constant warfare between the ‘chosen people’ and those whose land they believed God had given them to possess. There is violence in the fall of Jericho, and violence in the wars against the Philistines (the ancestors of today’s Palestinians). There is violence in the stories of Exile, perpetrated (in that case) on the chosen people, not so much by them.
The Hebrews both suffered and gave out violence (in the establishment of the Land called Holy). And so it is hardly surprising that their understanding of God included a level of violence too. God is conceived as a mighty warrior, who will strengthen the arm of his people. In the words of Isaiah 41 (today's other reading) ‘I will help you, says the Lord. I will make of you a threshing sledge, sharp, new, and having teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and crush them!’. This is the language of warfare, of the conquering and subjugation of one’s enemies.
On occasion, the Hebrews’ God even appears to carry-out violence on their behalf. Look, for example, at the violence perpetrated on the first-born of all Egyptians, or the way that the Egyptian army was drowned in the sea. These are violent acts, perpetrated by an apparently violent God.
But where did all this violence get the Hebrews, and indeed their competitor-nations? What did violence achieve over the roughly 4,000 years of history leading up to Jesus? To read the Hebrew Bible (what we call the Old Testament) is to read a litany of violence begetting violence. By the time of Jesus, the Land called Holy had been occupied and oppressed by many other violent conquerors. The Babylonians had a go, so did the Selucids and the Egyptians. The Greeks were in charge for a while, and then (by the time of Jesus) the Romans took over. Constant warfare had not achieved very much at all, for the self-described ‘chosen people’. After Jesus, further violence would lead to the destruction of the very Temple in Jerusalem, and the scattering of the Hebrews to the four corners of Earth, for nearly 2,000 years.
Jesus, of course, recognises this problem. As he cautions Peter, ‘he who lives by the sword will die by the sword’. Instead, Jesus ushers-in a new Kingdom of peace…by refusing to collude with the violence all around him. Ultimately, he chooses to let the violence of the state, of soldiers and of religious leaders wash over him. He absorbs their violence on the cross, and transmutes it into new life in the Resurrection.
But at the point we’ve reached in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is reflecting on how violence is all around his new Kingdom. He gives praise to John the Baptiser, as being greater than anyone yet of woman born. But, in a surprising twist, Jesus then says that ‘the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he’. Why is this? I suggest that it’s because he recognises that John the Baptiser is still subject to, and a product of, the violence of the Hebrews' history. John has no army, and he doesn’t advocate violence as such. But his language is rooted in violence. He addresses his followers as the ‘brood of vipers’. He envisages the coming Messiah as about to arrive with a winnowing fork in his hand, threshing the grain and separating-out the wheat from the chaff. Just as in the language of Isaiah, violent threshing imagery is used to declare the imagined purposes of God. John employs the same aggressive language as all the prophets before him.
But, Jesus notes, such violence achieves only more violence. Reflecting, no doubt, on the death of John the Baptiser, Jesus observes that since the days of John until now, the Kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. Herod employed such violence, when imprisoning and then beheading John. And now, violence against Jesus and his followers was being contemplated by the religious and secular leaders of the day. The violent were attempting to take the Kingdom by force.
But this will not do, for Jesus. ‘When someone strikes you on the right cheek, offer him your left. If you live by the sword, you will die by it. Blessed are the peacemakers, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’. Jesus’ radical message was that violence will not do. Whether it’s the violence of warfare, or the violence of poverty imposed on the poor by the rich. Jesus won’t even put up with the violence of words. None has a place in his Kingdom.
Now of course, non-violence (or pacifism) has a tricky history. It raises very tough questions about how we should respond when tyrannical warlords seek to take control of our lives and our destinies. Who could criticise British soldiers for taking up arms against thugs like the Nazis? And yet, Jesus invites us to do just that. How can we reconcile this? How do we make sense of Jesus’ clear pacifist message, in the real world of despots and tyrants?
Part of the answer is that Jesus’ Kingdom transcends national boundaries, and national protectionism. He invites us to see ourselves as citizens of a Kingdom that exists outside, above and beyond such historical lines. To that extent, it doesn’t very much matter who is in charge of the land on which we live – for we owe our lives, and our allegiance to a higher power than any earthly king, president or dictator. We are invited to see, and strive for, a bigger picture – a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven.
I recognise, of course, that such a goal is mightily hard to achieve. There are causes for which I might be prepared to take up arms. If enemy tanks rolled down Havant’s High Street, threatening to exterminate anyone who was not deemed worthy to live under some new dictator or other, I’d be the first one on the church tower to try and defend my town! In this respect, I recognise, of course, the tension between Jesus’ vision, and the hard reality of human life. But, while recognising the tension, let us not stop striving for the better reality, the better prospect of a better way. Let us never cease asking whether violence is the only way to deal with our challenges and problems.
For when the angels declared to the Shepherds the glory in the highest heavens, they sang of ‘peace on earth’ and of ‘goodwill between all peoples on whom God’s favour rests’. If such a picture of peace and goodwill was good enough for the angels, it’s good enough for us too. Amen.
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