Debunktion Junction: Asking the Right Questions

“When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt. 11:2)

What sparks this question?

Matthew introduces John the Baptist earlier in his Gospel as the Elijah-like precursor to the Messiah (see 3:1-12). He is pictured as an anti-establishment desert prophet prophesying outside institutional religion (the temple and the synagogue), calling Israel to spiritual conversion and renewal.

He believes the kingdom of heaven/God is about to be realized through the Messianic mediator who will immerse people in a fiery judgment. The wheat and the chaff will be separated.

John announces that the kingdom “has come near” in the person of the Messiah. The time is at hand. The ball is about to drop.

“Even now,” says John, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The righteous will be purified, but the wicked will be consumed by the “unquenchable fire.”

When a number of Pharisees and Sadducees find there way out to the desert to be baptized by John, he screams: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

For John, the advent of the Messiah and the realization of the kingdom involved a baptism in the wrath of God.

No wonder John is perplexed. His imprisonment may have dampened his spirit, but it is clear that there is a deeper issue. The Messiah is not acting the part.

Jesus seems to be reading off a different script. Where’s the baptism by fire? Why hasn’t the ax brought the trees down? Where is “the wrath to come”?

Jesus displays no interest in separating the wheat and the chaff. John must have observed that Jesus’ works were clearly more about inclusion than exclusion. Jesus invited and welcomed all manner of “chaff” to participate in an open table.  
The messianic works delineated in response to John’s question can be understood in a spiritual sense to point to all the core elements of the gracious gospel Jesus embodied and taught:

“the blind receive their sight” –  enlightenment, discernment
“the lame walk” –  healing, renewal, restoration
“the lepers are cleansed” –  forgiveness, inclusion, reconciliation
“the deaf hear” -  obedience, guidance, doing the word   
“the dead are raised”  –  new life, conversion, transformation
“the poor have good news brought to them"–  liberation, social justice, equality

After Jesus enumerates these messianic works he declares: “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” John is being challenged to get rid of his old script and embrace a new one.

John and his disciples stand to be “blessed” if they are open to “hear and see,” if they can move beyond their former way of thinking. The same is true for us. Can we hear a fresh word? Can we see an alternative vision? Are we open to new possibilities?

Even though John’s expectations were off target, Jesus affirms John in no uncertain terms (Matt. 11:7–11a). Jesus says that “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.” Just goes to show that good people who do good work can completely miss what God is doing.

Then Jesus says: “yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” It’s a kind of riddle, I think. It’s meant to evoke thought. I read it to mean that the one who embraces Jesus’ vision of the kingdom (reflected in the works he accomplished and the life he lived) will find oneself in a “greater” place of opportunity to participate in the work of the kingdom than even the greatest of the prophets.

I would like to think that Jesus’ words to John, while shattering John’s old paradigm, ignited a new vision and hope. Thankfully, John didn’t give up all hope and give in to disillusionment and despair. Though bewildered, he asked the question, and I want to believe that he lived into it.

How we understand God is always relative to where we stand in space and time. The pressures and influences of our time and culture deeply impact the way we think and relate to Ultimate Reality. Questions are the source of spiritual vitality and liberation.

A nightly news show periodically features a clip called “debunktion junction,” where some popular political (usually far right) notions are debunked. Maybe we need to do the same with some of our religious certitudes by asking weightier and more honest questions.

Thomas Merton said it well: “In the progress toward religious understanding, one does not go from answer to answer but from question to question. One’s questions are answered, not by clear, definitive answers, but by more pertinent and more crucial questions.”

Questions help to dismantle our pride, clear away our certitudes, and open a place for humility to take root and grow. Questions create the space needed “to hear and see” what new thing God may want to tell us and show us.


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