Violent Men Laying Hold

One of the most difficult passages in the New Testament is Matthew 11:12. And by difficult, I mean, “Nobody has any idea what this could possibly mean.”

11 “I assure you that no one who has ever been born is greater than John the Baptist. Yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven is violently attacked as violent people seize it. 13 All the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John came. 14 If you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 Let the person who has ears, hear. (Matt 11:12, CEB)

Is violence something happening to the kingdom? Or is it the way it’s proceeding? Is violently laying hold of it a good thing? or a bad thing?

The CEB guides us toward the idea that the violence is a bad thing. In the past, all I’ve had to offer students is an invitation to read Flannery O’Connor’s, The Violent Bear It Away.

But I heard a paper this morning that I think points in a helpful direction for making sense of it. The paper, by Matthew Bates of Quincy University, is entitled, “Veiled Resistance to a Violent King.”

Bates backed us up to the larger context, where Jesus responds to John’s disciples, and elaborates on John the baptist:

What did you go out to see? A reed shaken by the wind?

Bates draws attention to coinage that has been found–on which Herod Antipas has a reed a symbol of his leadership.

What did you go out to see? A person dressed in fine clothes? No–those in fine clothes live in king’s palaces.

In Matthew, as in Mark, Herod Antipas is referred to as “King,” specifically in the passage where Herod kills John the Baptist (Matthew 14).

Bates frames his argument with James Scott’s discussion of “hidden transcripts”: for those who are dominated, especially by a violent oppressor, critique and even words of judgment toward the overlords must be veiled. The cryptic code throughout the passage encodes veiled references to Herod Antipas.

People did not flock to see Herod, but the prophet. They did not flock to see the softly clothed, luxurious king. They went out to see a prophet.

They did not to out to see a Herodian kingdom, but the turning of the ages–the predecessor to the coming Kingdom of God. Herod has acted violently toward the kingdom; he has taken hold of it with violence.

Herod is belittled, Bates claims.

Also, I would add, the Kingdom of God is exalted. But exalted like the exalted little speck of yeast that gets hidden in the dough only thence to grow and leaven the whole.

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