More healings first, which are valuable witness to many things. These get richer and richer as the story progresses. The healing of the centurion’s slave shows the centurion’s great faith and Jesus’ accessibility to the hated Roman oppressors. There’s more, but that’s meat enough. And then this young man in Nain, whose death has left his mother destitute, and Jesus raises him to great acclaim. It comes to the attention of John, who sends messengers to find out what’s going on.
So it’s clear that despite the initial encounter between Jesus and John, the baptism, and all that; the disciples, and so forth, John still isn’t sure. Jesus refers to a text from Isaiah, a messianic prophecy, and shows how these healings he is performing have marked him as “the one who is to come.”
Now Jesus bears his witness to John, just as John had borne his to Jesus. He says that “among those born of women no one is greater than John”: high praise indeed. And that even the least in the kingdom of God is greater still. So this is big stuff. Ok, point made. Then comes two little verses, the two cited at the top above. The Episcopal lectionary has curiously marked these optional for the reading. Hrm, when this happens, one always wonders why?
Perhaps, most likely, they are worried about the anti-semitic cast one might place on them. Though, given all the anti-Pharisee stuff already, and yet to come, excising two verses can’t change that. Moreover, this is about “the Pharisees and the lawyers” as opposed to the “tax collectors” and “all the people who heard this.” The latter two groups are Jews, just as much as the former. So if this is why the lectionary authors diddled the text, it’s a silly reason.
But isn’t it telling what these verses say? Remember back to John’s baptism. Why did the Pharisees and the lawyers reject it? Because they didn’t need it or so they thought. For them to admit they needed a new beginning would be to admit that their old beginning isn’t enough. I am much fond of the Benedictine saying, “Always we begin again.” Those who think they do not need to begin again, reject God’s purpose for themselves. God is never content with what we have accomplished so far. The Pharisees, in their proud confidence that they did not need a new beginning, on the theory they had not sullied the old one, end up excluding themselves.
And, once more, who is included? Even “the tax collectors” (the hated collaborators with the Roman state), “tax collectors and sinners.” Who’s out? Those who are proud and confident in their in-ness. Who’s in? Those who are excluded and rejected by society, who have no place, who have no one to trust but God.
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