Cousins: Reflections on Matthew 3:13-17
In Matthew 11:3 we learn that John from prison sent his disciples to ask Jesus, "Are you the one who is to come or should we wait for another?" Jesus' response was something like this: "Dear cousin, I make no great claims about myself but look! The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. I make no great claims about myself. I only know that in my words and deeds the kingdom of God spreads itself out upon the face of the earth! You were right, cousin John, it is a kingdom of judgment because people need to be warned to repent. You are right, because people need to be strengthened and encouraged to repent and amend their lives. But it is also a kingdom of mercy. Words of judgment and warning must come from one who loves and forgives and heals them."
So John's disciples returned to John and whispered Jesus' words through the bars of his cell. We don't know if John learned a lesson from his cousin's words that the kingdom included healing and mercy as well as judgment. We do know that Jesus learned a lesson from John—that judgment was an abiding part of the kingdom. After John's disciples turned to go back to John, Jesus turns to the crowd who had rejected John's teachings as too harsh and supports his cousin. In 11:7-11 Jesus upbraids the crowd for being offended by John and allowing him to be caged. Jesus is saying, "If you follow me, remember I'm related to him. We are cousins. His passion for righteousness is in my blood, the fire in his eyes for justice burns in mine."
John the Baptist and Jesus are cousins in the same way that judgment and grace are cousins. Taken together they witness to the truth that the gospel sounds like bad news before it is experienced as good news; the gospel must lead to justice if it's going to bring joy.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.