Friday, 29 June 2007

A puzzle

I'm currently putting together in my head a more substantial posting about Jesus and the kingdom, but here's a puzzle I've come across as I've been working through Matthew's Gospel - why the long section and great detail about the execution of John the Baptist (in 14:1-12)? How does this emphasis help Matthew's agenda in writing his gospel?

The question perhaps becomes more pointed when we bring Mark's account into play. In the 'tabloid gospel', where it seems space is rarely dedicated to details that are unimportant to the theological account of Jesus' life, death and resurrection, a relatively vast section is dedicated to the beheading of John the Baptist (6:14-29).

Here are a few thoughts that I've had, but I'm still puzzled and would like to hear what others think.

My first reflection was that (in Matthew's Gospel at least, and it's on this Gospel I'll focus), the account of John's beheading follows Jesus' rejection in Nazareth (see 13:53-58). Jesus is the 'prophet without honour in his home town'. John is another prophet who is rejected. I'd wondered whether this was an allusion drawn upon in parable of the tenants in 21:33-46. However I now think this can be ruled out because John's beheading is clearly by Gentiles, whereas the parable focuses on Jewish rejection.

I then wondered if this section links together the preceding chapters, which focus on the nature of the kingdom (especially chapter 13) in the face of increasing Jewish hostility to Jesus, and a section which perhaps focuses more on the effect of Jesus' mission on the Gentiles. The faith of the Canaanite woman (15:21-28) in the face of the Pharisees' legalistic emphasis on righteousness is noticeable and it's probable that the feeding of the four thousand (15:29-39) was in Gentile territory. Peter's confession of Jesus as Christ and Son of God is certainly in a Gentile town dedicated to Caesar, Caesarea Philippi. I still think that this idea still might have some merit.

My most recent thought is that the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus are tightly linked in Matthew's Gospel. Clearly, Jesus is greater than John, but they have the same message - 'Repent for the kingdom of God is near' - in 3:2 and 4:17. Both are opposed by the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Now could it be that the pattern continuing? Is John's unjust execution at the hands of the Gentiles prefiguring Jesus' own similar death (20:19)? After all, whilst John had perhaps expected the Messianic kingdom to immediately be established, Jesus reminds him that although the kingdom is advancing, it will never come without opposition (see 11:11-13). Is this why Jesus' reaction to the news of John's execution is to withdraw by boat to a private place, where he can process this more and pray upon it as he reflects on his own future suffering and death?

As I say, this remains something of a puzzle, and I'd love to hear other thoughts, as I'm keen to understand more of Matthew's mind and to discover more about the Christ I worship and follow.

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