Nearly Indecipherable! Exploring a Gospel Passage that is Difficult but Rich in Blessings

There is a passage read at yesterday’s Mass (Thursday of the Second Week of Advent) that is complex, to say the least. A footnote in the Ignatius Study Bible calls a phrase in it, “nearly indecipherable.” So, let’s wade into the text and see what we find. 

For the record, the brief passage is, as follows: 

Jesus said to the crowds:
“Amen, I say to you,
among those born of women
there has been none greater than John the Baptist;
yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
From the days of John the Baptist until now,
the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence,
and the violent are taking it by force.
All the prophets and the law prophesied up to the time of John.
And if you are willing to accept it,
he is Elijah, the one who is to come.
Whoever has ears ought to hear.” (Matt 11:11-14) 

At the center of this reading is St. John the Baptist and the setting forth of his role by Jesus. The first difficulty in the text is most easily overcome, namely that Jesus seems to offer faint praise for John the Baptist. On the one hand he says no one born of woman was greater than John. But then, he indicates that the least born into the Kingdom is greater than John. There are several explanations that can be taken together to explain this remark. 

  1. While St. John the Baptist possessed every sort of human and natural virtue to the most excellent degree, the baptized Christian acquires supernatural virtues such as Faith, Hope and Charity. Even the natural virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude are perfected by grace and attain to a kind of supernatural quality to the degree that we cooperate with God’s work. 
  2. The Christian acquires sanctifying grace, a supernatural virtue that makes us pleasing to God. Prior to this we were dead in our sins (Col 2:13) and subject to the wrath to come (1 Thes 1:10). In other words, we were incapable of approaching God since the light of his truth is too bright and the fire of his love too much to endure. Only by Sanctifying Grace and on-going purification can we hope to enter God’s glory. 
  3. The Christian acquires all the blessings of God and heaven. Before Christ and his sanctifying and redeeming work, no one could enter heaven. St. Augustine hints at this: ..The kingdom of heaven is something which we had not yet received, [but] of which [Jesus] speaks, Come, ye blessed of my Father, receive the kingdom, (Mat. 25:34). (Quoted in the Catena Aurea) 
  4. St. John Chrysostom says, That the abundance of the praise [of St. John the Baptist] might not beget a wrong inclination in the Jews to set John above Christ, he corrects this, saying, He that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. (Quoted in the Catena Aurea) 

Hence, many blessings accrue to those baptized into Christ Jesus that even the greatest and most virtuous apart from Him could never receive except by grace. Some argue that St. John the Baptist was sanctified in his mother’s womb (when he leaped with joy). But St. John received this gift antecedently on account of Christ and hence the teaching on grace must hold. John’s truest is greatness is not what he received being born of woman, but what he received being born of grace. 

However the next difficulty is harder to resolve. Jesus says, 

From the days of John the Baptist until now,
the Kingdom of heaven suffers violence,
and the violent are taking it by force.

What is this violence? Most ordinary readers think it refers simply to persecution endured by the Church. But this is not likely the case. The text does say that the Kingdom of Heaven “suffers violence.” The Greek verb is, βιάζεται (biazetai) meaning to forcibly seize, or lay hold of something with aggressiveness. It is in the passive voice (though some argue for the middle voice). And thus the widely held translation is that the Kingdom suffers violence or aggressiveness. 

However, the next verse says that the violent take it by force. But those who persecute the Church seek not to possess it, but to destroy it. 

So our surface interpretation of persecution needs some reconsideration. These antagonists seem to want the Kingdom, but want it by force or to aggressively lay hold of it. Who are they? Two theories emerge: 

  1. They are the perpetrators of pseudo-messianism, the many false messiahs of First Century and their followers who sought to usher in the Kingdom by initiating a violent uprising and war against the Roman oppressors. Jesus warned elsewhere of false Messiahs (e.g. Mat 24:24) and not to follow them. He sought rather a way of peace and desired the Church to convert the Romans, not kill them. 
  2. A second theory sees this group as the large and often aggressive crowds that sought and demanded Jesus’ attention. They are “violent” in the sense of being eager and filled with impetuous zeal. They grasp at the spoils of the kingdom of heaven— i.e. the physical healings of Jesus, his pardon and preaching, with a zeal that is intense but not deep. They like to hear of healings and experience them but ignore the demands of the gospel such as the cross, or the moral life. 

Speaking for myself, I prefer this second theory for its pastoral application. Jesus was often assailed by crowds. That is good in itself. But what did they (we) seek? Was it repentance and the new life of grace, or merely free bread and fish, healings and good sermons. Jesus did not trust large crowds. Whenever there is a mention of a large crowd, let the reader beware, a hard saying is coming —  teachings about the Cross, teachings the absolute primacy of Jesus, teachings against divorce, teachings about the Eucharist. Hence Jesus was often battling those who sought to grab at the Kingdom on their own terms and murmured or went away when Jesus did not meet their expectations (c.f. John 6:60ff; John 8:30ff) 

St. Jerome echoes this view: 

Because John the Baptist was the first who preached repentance to the people, saying, Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand: rightly therefore from that day forth it may be said, that the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force. For great indeed is the violence, when we who are born of earth, seek an abode in heaven, and to obtain …what we have not by nature. (Quoted in the Catena Aurea) 

As a final clue, in this mysterious and difficult text, Jesus links St. John the Baptist mission to that of the Elijah figure who would appear before the day of the Lord: And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who is to come. Note the following description of the work of this Elijah figure: 

Lo, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome  Day of the LORD. And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers. Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with doom.” (Malachi 4:5-6) 

Note, therefore, that to those who would seek merely the blessings of the Kingdom such as miracles and healings, and who even forcefully insist on the Kingdom on their own terms, Jesus points to John’s (Elijah’s) message: repentance and mutual forgiveness. We do not take the Kingdom of Heaven by force or on our terms, we take it by grace granted through repentance and mutual love. 

A difficult passage indeed, notoriously obscure! And yet, with a couple of premises accepted, the pastoral message is clear and helpful: Accept the Kingdom of Heaven on God’s terms, do not demand a kingdom of your own imagining. God is found in his real Kingdom, not a fake or imaginary one. 

Jesus concludes: “Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

14 Replies to “Nearly Indecipherable! Exploring a Gospel Passage that is Difficult but Rich in Blessings”

  1. The pastoral application applies to today’s Gospel reading as well (MT 11:16-19).
    The “violent” are those who are possessive, who walk by sight and not by faith as one who’s been taken possession of by Christ. And those who are not contrite of heart and are ungrateful to the Lord remain in darkness.

  2. Thank you for the aha moment! I have long wondered about the title of Flannery O’Connor’s story, The Violent Bear It Away. The phrase now makes more sense and so does the teaching.

    1. Flannery O’Conner explained what she meant by “The Violent Bear It Away” in a letter to a friend, which I read about a year ago in “The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Conner” edited by her friend Sally Fitzgerald. I have to wildly paraphrase: I understood her to mean that “the violent” are those who work at salvation when it gets hard. Was it Aquinas who was asked what one needs to do to become a saint, and he answered “Will it!”? I think O’Connir meant something along those lines, that when we approach “the narrow gate,” which is our personal Way of the Cross, we must accept the suffering, or relinquish the desire, or do whatever we need to do to stay close to Jesus at that juncture. I think in O’Connor’s short story, a character has to choose between his kinfolk and doing what he thinks he is called to do. This would make what Jesus is saying one of those Jewish couplets that is imbued with irony: “The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence” (there are those who try to win it on their own terms; what Msgr. Pope has said), but the violent (the ironic twist — another kind of ‘violent’ ones — those who go the Way of the Cross) bear it away (surprise, those are the ones who actually carry away the spoils, i.e. they HAVE won the Kingdom).

  3. I would think the violence might also be about the fallen angels, the “strong man” in the house, resisting the treasure being taken away. The battlefield is the desert, exterior and interior… etc.

  4. In an era when religious liberty is increasingly under threat, “taking by force” becomes a more accurate description of those who abide by the Gospel counterculturally.

  5. Hi Father, could you please explain why even in the Kingdom of Heaven there are some that are considered “the least?” This has always jumped out at me. It is depressing to think even in Heaven there are some that are thought to be “greater” and some “lesser.”

  6. Thank you for this deeply provoking sermon. The persecutors and the impetuous zealous are the same, not the invisible Church of God, both selfmade with reason respectively faith, and we often feel like stuck in either trench, since the world will demand of us all “biazetai.” God’s grace is pure gift, with faith made in God, and God demands of us all, only what he gives. That is why he wishes to give us every virtue. It is not for a human being to rule a conscience.

  7. The problem is that St John the Baptist is traditionally believed to have been sanctified and cleansed from original sin at the Visitation, which means that he likely had the infused virtues in light of Christ’s future passion, etc.

  8. Thanks for this reflection on one of the more enigmatic of the “tough sayings of Jesus,” such as the “pearl of great price” or when a number of good things are promised, added to the list is the admonition “and persecution besides.”

  9. Hmm, that’s not how I’ve understood “the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force.” I thought (and continue to think thus) that meant is the violence against our-‘selves’, or rather against the sinful passions that have taken root in us. After all, the Kingdom of Heaven is within us, waiting for us to conquer (take) it. And we know about saints who have been so ‘violent’ against the sinful passions in them, that they’ve even flogged themselves (not that I would recommend that practice for everyone); or they went to live in the wilderness, often a desert. (That’s also what St Jerome meant in that quote.)

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