Thursday in the 2nd Week of Advent: Isaiah 41:13-20, Matthew 11:11-15.
Today’s readings appear to be head-scratchers. The gospel, in particular, quotes Jesus speaking in an ominous-sounding tone about the violent taking the Kingdom of Heaven by force. But as we dig into them, the readings reveal a consistent truth about the sometimes violent nature of love as it transforms something lukewarm into something passionate. We also can realize that Jesus is applying this understanding to the change of epochs from the Time of Promises to the End Times in which we live in love as the Church.
Isaiah provides a startlingly Christ-like promise to the Chosen People 750 years before Christ — well, startling until you recall that it is the Word, Jesus Christ Himself, who is speaking through Isaiah, and then we recognize in yet another way the proof of God in the world. Isaiah says, “Fear not, O worm Jacob, O maggot Israel; I will help you, says the LORD; your redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.” Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Is Isaiah just name-calling? He does ridicule the Chosen People soundly throughout his prophecies for how they have turned from God and stopped living according to his law. But there’s more here. What are worms and maggots but the lowliest of things, creatures who live off of death and decay? Isaiah is simply stating a fact that they are caught in the world ruled by death, something that Jesus will finally dispel for humanity. Isaiah actually gives them great hope here because God promises to help them, and not only that: their redeemer will be one of them, in the line of Israel.
And then we encounter our first visions of violence: “I will make of you a threshing sledge,
sharp, new, and double-edged, To thresh the mountains and crush them, to make the hills like chaff.” God is speaking in terms of a violent transformation, that Israel will be a tool for the nations, sharp enough to crush them. He does not mention pagan “nations” being crushed like chaff, but instead the mountains and hills. Could these be the obstacles in life that loom before us? He continues: “When you winnow them, the wind shall carry them off
and the storm shall scatter them.” In this image, Israel is doing the important work of threshing and winnowing grain, removing the useless and non-nutritious bits of the world and keeping that which gives life. This does not seem to be a blind violence intent on destruction.
The next verses help to explain that something of a different order is going on. “The afflicted and the needy seek water in vain, their tongues are parched with thirst. I, the LORD, will answer them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them.” The passage resumes the refrain of God’s help and love for Israel and other poor “worms” in need. The sharp threshing sledge — a tool for the harvest (see The Generous Harvest without Cost for more thoughts on the importance of harvesting in God’s plan) — seems to be more about a kind of saving refinement than destruction. Water, as we’ve explored, is synonymous with life in sacred scripture, and God paints his promise with the imagery of overwhelming, death-defying life sprouting everywhere: “I will open up rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the broad valleys; I will turn the desert into a marshland, and the dry ground into springs of water.” The land itself is transformed by God’s love, in order to support life and help humanity thrive. Thus, Isaiah presents an undeniable image of violence on the earth paired with God’s saving, life-giving, transformative love.
But how can love be violent? We think of love as comfort, protection, and peace. Without the correct lens to understand God’s Word, we end up like the Messianic Jews in Jesus’s time, awaiting a King who will enact the violence of destruction to create an earthly kingdom for the Jews. They might have even referenced Isaiah’s passage to support their arguments (they are “thirsty” for their own nation and God promises that they will crush and scatter).
Of course, Jesus Christ is our lens to understand this seeming paradox, not to mention the Redeemer who is promised. An important explanation of this joining of violence and love comes today, although it seems even weirder at first glance. Jesus is doing a number of things in the gospel reading: testifying to John the Baptist’s greatness, marking the transition from the Old Covenant and Time of Promises to the New Covenant and the End Times, and pairing a type of violence with His new reign of love.
Overtly, today’s gospel is about John the Baptist. He opens with, “among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.” Note that Jesus qualifies his statement with “born of women” — the contrast being “born of God” or “born of the Spirit,” which applies to Him and also all Christians who are baptized in His Name and become a part of His Bride, the Church. So, Jesus is saying that John is the greatest person ever to have been born to date. Indeed, we call him the greatest of the prophets. This is because he prepares the way for the Lord, always points away from himself and to the Son of God, demonstrating for us the appropriate posture of all humanity.
Then Jesus quickly qualifies His statement: “yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” This does not detract from John’s greatness, but simply states the fact that those who are united with God in the Kingdom are on a completely different level of greatness, simply by their proximity to and joining with the Creator. Nothing on earth can compare with the glory and splendor of the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus is drawing some distinctions for the crowd who has gathered to be with Him.
And the next distinction is inscrutable upon first hearing it: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force.” Jesus is marking a distinction of times: the time before John versus the time “of” John, when Christ has been walking the earth as his contemporary. Jesus says that the Kingdom suffers violence, and those violent people are forcefully taking it. What’s going on here? We must ponder this.
Recall that in the Gospel of St. Matthew, John’s disciples had just come to join the crowds around Jesus and asked Him if He was the Messiah. Jesus told them to report back to John truthfully about what they see (the proof is in the pudding!). John’s disciples, who in truth are Jesus’s disciples just like the crowds gathered there, are what is different about this time of “John the Baptist until now.” People are earnestly seeking God, dropping everything else in their lives, living anew in a Spirit-fueled way. Are these the “violent” whom Jesus says are taking the Kingdom by force?
We certainly can’t think that He means the Romans, the Herodians, and others who cause violence to the people. He preaches many times against this type of worldly power; we need simply scan the Beatitudes to know that these people are not “taking the Kingdom.” Plus, such a reading implies that somehow the Kingdom of heaven is vulnerable and that the Son of God has anxiety over its unlawful seizure. No, this is untenable — God’s reign is absolute and God does not feel anxiety over injustice; instead He destroys evil with an unyielding, purifying fire.
So if Jesus is not anxious about an unlawful violence, we must conclude that He is saying these things with a certain recognition of the righteousness of “the violent taking it by force.” This must be God’s plan.
Thankfully, Fr. Simeon Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis helped to make sense of this passage for me. He translates the original Greek as “the Kingdom of Heaven is irrupting forcefully, and the forceful are seizing it.” I will quote at length his masterful interpretation:
The Lord’s saying here possesses a resonance of deep mystery: Is violence being done to the Kingdom or by the Kingdom? The Greek middle voice here admits either the rendering given above or the more traditional “the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence.” However, any number of signs from the context prompt us to understand the passage in terms of the forceful initiative undertaken by the Kingdom of Heaven to establish itself on earth as a new reality. We have been prepared for such an understanding by Jesus’ declaration, “I have come to bring not peace but the sword upon the earth” (10:34). … His followers must be persons of deep convictions, whose faith is more powerful than the natural human fear of “those who can kill the body” (10:28). Above all, the Christian must be a person who loves Jesus more than father and mother, son or daughter (10:37). All of these are particular aspects of the salutary interior violence a person must do to himself in order to be “worthy of Jesus”, an heir of the Kingdom, and a child of the Father of the Word. The mysterious formulation, then, appears to mean that the “violence” or “forcefulness” that God himself is using so as to tear down the barriers that the human heart has erected against the approach of grace must be matched by the decision on the part of individuals to respond just as violently and forcefully in embracing that grace. … The Kingdom does not fall on us like the rain: we must repent, change our way of life, catch the fire of the love of God in Jesus, cling to God just as passionately as we previously clung to our wayward desires.
(Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, Vol. I, 659-660)
I particularly like how Leiva-Merikakis identifies the violence as of the type God Himself uses to tear down barriers in the human heart. How does God do this other than love? We begin to see how God’s love has an inherent violence against sloth and against evil. We, as Christians, are called to respond to this internal violence caused by love and just as forcefully “embrace the grace.”
I am reminded of this passage from the Book of Revelation: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev 3:15-16). We are not called to be lukewarm Christians, nodding at what we hear, kneeling at the right time, learning the prayers by rote but without a conversion of heart that translates into charity. We are called to grasp Christ and hold Him close, to change our lives from the base temptations and evil in the world so that we can yoke ourselves to Christ, allow Him to perfect us, and be worthy of the Kingdom.
This speaks to the violence inherent in any kind of change or passion. Change is a movement from one state of being to another. It is inherently and unavoidably disruptive. And as we’ve identified throughout Advent, God’s love is transformative. This means there is a certain awesome violence in this love that dislodges us from self-centeredness and inactivity. Remember Isaiah’s words from God today: “I will open up rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the broad valleys; I will turn the desert into a marshland, and the dry ground into springs of water.” This transformation is life-giving, not destructive. This is a force to rejoice in, not to fear. This is an internal violence that may upend our lives, but only for the better!
So Jesus is marking the time of His coming — the time of John the Baptist helping his disciples prepare the way for the Lord — as one of an internal violence, fueled by the Spirit, where those who are “moved” are seizing the Kingdom of Heaven within this sphere of transformative love.
The final bit of today’s gospel finds Jesus emphatically marking the end of the age of the prophets. He says, “All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come.” Jesus is saying that the time of the prophets (also called the Age of Promises) ends with John. All of the prophets until John prepared the people with prophecies of what was to come, but John actually announced that the Son of God has arrived. The last sentence shows that John is the fulfillment of the time of prophecy; Jesus is referring to the Book of Malachi: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Mal 4:5). Jesus tells the crowds that John closes the cycle of prophecy, fulfilling the promise of Elijah’s coming. John has inaugurated the era of Christ’s Reign, the Kingdom of Heaven come down to earth.
So, let us not be too meek and mild in our hearts this Advent. Today’s readings remind us that God’s transformative love is violent, in a good way, and we are called to seize the Kingdom by throwing ourselves into it wholeheartedly, opening ourselves completely.