Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen 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 has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
In another life, I was afforded the opportunity to help begin a youth program aimed toward middle schoolers. The ministry was an offshoot of an existing ministry of the Church and involved much of the same leadership. In deciding what the group needed to be founded on, it was decided that it should empower people, young people, to become part of something larger. The decision was made to begin planning based on a passage of scripture, and the decision was made unilaterally that that foundation should be today’s scripture, specifically verse 12 of chapter 11.
Reading that verse, it seems hardly like something anyone would want to unify a group of young people behind. “the Kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” Certainly, that was the opinion of several people in the group, but there was a unilateral move to make this the motto. Elements of the leadership could see that, with just a little tweaking, a verse talking about how Christians suffer because of their faith could be a triumphant statement. “If you are forceful in your faith, then the Kingdom of God will expand but you have to be forceful!” That ethic led to a search through all translations of the scripture until one was found that matched that sentiment. Rather than using King James, or NIV, or NRSV, the “God’s Word Translation,” was used which rendered the verse, “”From the time of John the Baptizer until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful people have been seizing it”
That makes a difference does it not? It lets us dream of triumphant Christians pushing through a world of unbelievers and establishing the Kingdom of Heaven and their place in it. It has none of the drabness of acknowledging suffering on the behalf of God because it is a victorious declaration of how, with the right amount of force, the Kingdom of Heaven becomes real.
The problem with this, evident to all but the few people with any real authority, was that it was clearly a manipulation of the text. While it is true that the exact wording of the passage allows for multiple possible translations, translators are almost universally in agreement about how this text should be rendered. This memory of mine, which returned to me as I began to study for this sermon, seemed almost quaint in its distance from me, in its improbability.
However, as I prepared this sermon, I found that this specific manipulation was common. People preaching in revivals, crusades, and even simply from the pulpit Sunday to Sunday did not want to make it seem like Christianity was a difficult thing to be a part of – certainly not to imply that true Christianity might result in you being opposed by powerful people. No, it has often been decided that it is better for us to receive a positive message about how we if we just believe and do and preach hard enough, will see God in our life. That message does not ask much of us and it plays into our most basic desires anyway.
Last week we discussed how we tend to claim we are making sacrifices predominately in situations where those sacrifices do not ask much of us. When the price rises above someone responding poorly to the Facebook post we share or fuming over the conversation we had at a family get together we usually check-out and declare any further action as someone else’s problem. Today, we must consider the other side of that coin. What happens when we as the Church do act, but our actions are based solely on making God’s will conform to ours and not the other way round. What happens when we, through violence toward a text or toward other people or toward ourselves, take hold of the Kingdom that belongs to God alone?
We often hear about the manipulation of the Gospel from faith leaders. Accusations of people, “watering down,” the Gospel are fairly common in discourse. However, this accusation is usually pointed outward. There is little acknowledgment of how, with very little exception, everyone has their own points of scripture they are willing to twist to make their points. When we want to justify our willingness to take up arms against X, Y, or Z we can find passages in Judges or Kings to justify that. When we want to justify our own sin, we can point to passages that remind our critics that they are in no place to judge us. When we want to instigate arguments about proper worship, we can find any passage that justifies our traditional, contemporary, ascetic, or eccentric stances. The manipulation of scripture is not a problem of any one faction in the Church but instead threatens to permeate the lives of every Christian.
The near-universal presence of a thing is not an excuse for its existence, but it allows us to frame the conversation. As we understand that we are not pointing outward to those who misuse God’s word, but that we too must investigate the ways we manipulate Scripture, we also begin to see that interpretation must be a collaborative effort between communities in themselves and communities with one another. This month I personally, have added a great deal of Black theology to my reading list, that is theology written by Black writers about Black experiences in light of the Scripture. What this allows on one level is for me to peel back how my background, my experiences, my biases have led to me manipulating scripture to match my worldview. This phenomenon is true of any instance where we read perspectives other than our own, the violence that we have done to the text is made obvious in a different light being shone on it.
It is necessary for every Christian to think critically about what they believe. While the words of scripture are true and edifying to us, we do not come to them without our own interpretations preloaded in our minds. We have hundreds of sermons and op-eds and devotionals to draw from in a moment. This is not in itself bad, but we must acknowledge that the Spirit works either with or against these resources as we come to understand the Word of God. Taking each influence and thinking about what it contributes allows us to clear the way much more effectively.
Returning to our scripture for today in particular, we can see how our own desire for immediate results and having our own way pushes us into wrongful action. When we think of the Church post-Constantine, invested with money and power and influence and how quickly it sought to forcefully establish itself. How often it has been stained by those who chase after violence and forcefulness as a means to achieve a so-called righteousness. The pogroms against non-believers, crusades that colored the world red with blood, expeditions into the new world, and the enslavement of native persons to rush along the end of the time.
This is contrasted with the witness of Christ and of the Apostles. Strong and sure in their beliefs as they were, they did not force their way through the world or take up weapons to coerce the world into believing. Instead, they took up crosses, they served those who threatened their lives, they stood up for those who were being killed or abandoned by the powers that be, they pursued the Kingdom of Heaven through love and devotion to the people God gave them to serve. It was this devotion, this service to the marginalized and to those rejected by those in power that defined the Church and that defined Christ. We today cannot give ourselves over to any Gospel that mandates violence, any vision of the Kingdom founded on any blood but the blood of Christ, and we must seek to remove from ourselves all desires that do not align with the goodness of God, the expansion of God’s Kingdom, and the fulfillment of God’s beloved community.
The Kingdom of God, from the first days, has suffered violence, let us seek never to be the source of that violence. Let us remove all violence in our hearts toward our neighbors, our God, and our scriptures. Let us, through careful self-inspection and devotion, see the scales of our biases and presumptions fall from our eyes, and the radiance of God’s new vision for creation be made plain to us. – Amen.
 Matthew W. Bates. “Cryptic Codes and a Violent King.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly no. 75, 2013. 74-93