Today’s Reading: Matthew 11:1-30
Most of us struggle with doubts. It’s a strange comfort to know that even John the Baptist had his doubts (v 3). News had reached John about the miracles and radical teachings of Jesus, yet something seemed strange to him. Even as a prophet, Jesus wasn’t the kind of person he had expected.
Despite the doubts voiced, Jesus treated John with respect. He answered John’s followers with a series of allusions to the prophet Isaiah (vv 4-6); and then he explained that John was the end of the great line of prophets (vv 7-15). He was even the long-expected heir of Elijah.
John had questions, Jesus gave grace.
The crowds had their doubts too. Jesus knew that many who were watching would be judging John, so he turns to reflect on them. Some of them judged Jesus for perceived moral failures (vv 16-18). Jesus’ description of them as children playing a joke implied that they were not actually looking to resolve their doubts. They wanted something from the Messiah, but apparently many were not so worried about the Messiah himself. Jesus wasn’t the kind of person they had expected!
Jesus continued in the prophetic mode to pronounce “woe” on them (vv 20-24). Infamous Sodom and the old pagan Phoenician cities – the worst of places – would have believed if they had seen Jesus, but this crowd didn’t see it. Surely Jesus doesn’t really mean to be that harsh?
John had questions, Jesus gave grace; the some of the crowd had questions, Jesus gave judgment. What is the difference?
It seems that the issue is not what specific questions they bring, but rather why they bring them. Jesus pressed the conversation forward by praying and thanking God for those who had understanding like children (vv 25-26). Child-like faith doesn’t mean foolish or blind faith; rather it means honest trust in a person. Those who trust in Christ don’t ignore doubts, but sincerely look to him for answers.
In his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt demonstrates that the first rule of moral psychology is: “Intuition comes first, strategic reasoning second.” In other words, we want something first, and then we try to find reasons to justify it. Haidt’s first principle illuminates our doubts.
The difference is that John was honest about what he wanted, while the others were hoping for something else. John wanted the Messiah, others wanted the Messiah as a way to get other things. Jesus sees through the doubts to the heart.
Flannery O’Connor experienced this kind of honest doubt during her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1946-7. She wrote in her prayer journal:
At every point in this educational process, we are told that [faith] is ridiculous and the arguments sound so good it is hard not to fall into them. The arguments might not sound so good to someone with a better mind; but my mental trappings are as they are, and I am always on the brink of assenting – it is almost a subconscious assent. … Dear God, I don’t want to have invented my faith to satisfy my weakness. I don’t want to have created God to my own image as they’re so fond of saying. … Dear Lord, please give the people like me who don’t have the brains to cope with that, please give us some kind of weapon, not to defend us from them but to defend us from ourselves…
Jesus ends with an invitation (vv 27-30). To those who doubt – who doubt in good faith – Jesus simply gives himself. If we’re weary, we may rest in him. If we’re burdened by the weight of our failings, he may trust in him. Everyone has doubts and questions. Jesus doesn’t begin by offering answers, instead he offers himself. Some answers will come, some questions might linger for some time; but what is always available to anyone who would come is the love of Christ!
Rev. Jeremy M. Mullen is a Harvard Chaplain, and the campus ministers for Reformed University Fellowship. He advises Harvard Undergraduate Fellowship (HUF).