The works of the Christ

11 December 2016
Third Sunday of Advent
Advent IIIA (RCL)
Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:4-9
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

I grow increasingly frustrated with the NRSV translation. In this instance, we are told that when John, in prison, “heard what the Messiah was doing,” he sent his disciples to ask. In the Greek, the phrase is, “heard the works of the Christ.” And the genitive could be read as an adjective, “heard the Christly works.” “What the Messiah was doing” just doesn’t communicate that John is referring to specific works and specific kinds of works or acts.

This passage comes just after Jesus has sent out his disciples (the twelve) with power and instruction to cast out demons, heal the sick, raise the dead, etc. The implication is that John hears of these things. The disciples are doing the works of the Christ. The NRSV translation misses that emphasis. Jesus replies, “Go tell John what you hear and see.” Again, given the setting just after the sending of the twelve, Jesus is telling John’s disciples to report on what his own disciples are doing. They are fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the return from Exile. This is a conversation between the disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus (Matthew’s community), answering the question of John’s role in the economy of salvation.

And there are references to the beatitudes as well. In the phrase, “The poor have good news preached to them,” the word for poor is the same as used in the beatitudes: How honorable the poor in spirit. And Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who takes no offense in me.” The word for blessed is makarios, the same as the beatitudes.

If the context is a conversation between the disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus, this comment makes more sense. All parties to that conversation know that Jesus died by crucifixion, and so it would be easy to take offense (be scandalized). Even Paul says that the message of Christ crucified is scandal to the Greeks.

If John’s disciples had been expecting a triumphant Christ, they would be scandalized by a crucified Christ. That is why Jesus answers to tell him what they hear and see. The signs of the return are being done among Jesus’ disciples. This is a different kingdom than they were expecting. Jesus also says that John is the coming one, and a little later, he will say that John is Elijah, if the reader can accept it. The kingdom is not the overthrow of worldly powers, at least not in worldly terms, but the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them. It’s here, if you can see it.

When Jesus asks the crowd what they went out to see, when they went to see John, his first comparison is a reed shaken in the wind. The reference here is to the servant songs of Isaiah, in which the servant will not break a bruised reed. The servant, whether John or Jesus, will bring justice without violence. This reworks our understanding of vengeance, promised in the Isaiah passage. The servant takes God’s vengeance into himself in order to make peace for all the nations.

Do we see the works of the Christ around us now?

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