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
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
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.