Reading: Matthew 11
After John was arrested by Herod, he sent a couple of his disciples to Jesus to ask: “Are you the one?” I can empathize with this question. John was a miracle child, born into an influential family. Even though John’s life choices were to become a desert prophet, masses of people from all walks of life followed him into the desert. By every measure, John proved he was a man of great influence.
John’s role in the Gospel is to introduce Jesus to the world. When John’s disciples notice that Jesus is becoming more and more recognized, they encourage John to compete. John tells them: “He must increase, I must decrease.” John gives up his fame and influence because he believes that Jesus is the one the world has been waiting for.
This is not just a loss of fame — John was arrested because his preaching offended people in power. Eventually he would be killed because those in power were offended by him. Something about the message that prophets bring that leads the powerful to kill them. John did not merely retire because Jesus surpassed him — John would give his life. One cannot blame John for looking for assurance that he sacrificed everything for the right cause.
Jesus comforts John by sending back this message: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”
This message is similar to what one reads in Isaiah 61 and may be a direct quote from a translation of Isaiah into Greek. By sending this message, Jesus attaches himself to the message the prophet Isaiah gave — a message that caused the prophet to be sawed in half.
Good news for the poor and the oppressed is often received as bad news for the oppressors. If we look back at the prophets at the time approaching the Babylonian captivity, we get a good idea what this might be: Oppression goes against the Law God gave to the descendants of Israel, and the kings and other leaders oppressed the people of Israel anyways.
The prophets suggest the reason that Israel and Judah fell is because they disobeyed God’s law, specifically God’s law about oppressing the poor and the powerless. They preached God is on the side of those who suffer under the powerful, however, if God is on the side of the oppressed, God is against the oppressor. When the prophets talk about justice and punishment, those who will receive punishment for their acts of injustice receive this as bad news. In the case of Isaiah, this Good News for the poor means the end of David’s kingdom and the death of a nation.
We know that John was killed because Herod did not appreciate his prophecy. Jesus was killed because those in power heard the good news for the poor and received it as the bad news that their power would end. Jesus died because those leaders who wanted to hold onto power by any means necessary were sinful people — Jesus died because of their sinfulness.
This part of the Gospel can be difficult for good church people living in relative comfort. We miss the part of the message that is Good News for the oppressed. Christ came to save us from our sins, and oppression is a sin problem. This sin problem is still a big part of our world. Too often professing Christians choose to celebrate rather than condemn sin.