I just read today’s reading to my 8 year-old son, and this is what he said:
“I don’t think John the Baptist did a good job telling the people about who Jesus would be because Jesus didn’t come with fire…he was gracious to the people, and John kinda gave people the wrong idea.”
Is that right? John is certainly a fiery fellow. See how he addresses the Pharisees (a conservative Jewish group who believed that the Jews needed to come back to the Torah and be obedient) and the Sadducees (the ruling group of priests who collaborated with the Romans):
“You brood of vipers….
“I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”John the Baptist, Matthew 3:11-12
That image of a wrathful judge doesn’t fit with our typical picture of Jesus, meek and mild. And, in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus does seem gracious and kind in many situations. In that way, my son was right.
But on the other hand, there are elements of the wrathful judge in Matthew’s description of Jesus. (To cite one example among many, see the famous parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.)
As we read Matthew’s Gospel, we’ll see that Jesus doesn’t fit preconceived notions, in his time or in our own. Yes, he is gracious and merciful (particularly towards the weak and downtrodden), but he is also forthright and condemning (particularly towards the religious and arrogant).
Jesus doesn’t conform to our expectations, and that’s the point:
We don’t fit Jesus into what we already think. Rather, we need to fit what we think into Jesus. That’s much harder, and much more important.