Back in 2001, after the horror of the terrorist attacks on the morning of September 11, I sought solace by attending mass at a nearby parish. On that Tuesday evening, and in the days that followed, the priest prayed that we might be delivered from men of violence.
Last week, during the 2nd Week of Advent, the words of Matthew 11:12 stood out, and they continue to occupy my thoughts, begging for some interpretation that fits in with the entirety of God’s revelation.
My RSV translation gives the verse as “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force.” A note in the text informs that some sources read, “has been coming violently” in lieu of “has suffered violence.” The two alternate texts have meanings that are almost completely out of phase with one another if parsed grammatically. I can sympathize with the translators, who had to try to decide which of two ancient Greek texts was more authentic – especially since Greek was not the language in which the words were spoken. The NAB translation used for the mass is similar: “the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force.” The NIV, however, translates it a little differently: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forcefully men lay hold of it.” My NIV translation contains no mention of alternate texts, or of violence.
I am aware of two interpretations of the passage. One is that violence isn’t violence. That is to say that the verse refers to men who are willing to take extreme action in pursuit of sanctity. If there is violence to be done, it is to be self-inflicted. This interpretation sounds to me an awful lot like the jihad-as-internal struggle interpretation of the Koran. I will take it into consideration, but I’m not sure that I’m ready to buy it.
The second interpretation that I’ve heard is that of violence done to those who seek the kingdom. The prophets were put to death, and Jesus promises persecution to any who follow him. This interpretation tracks with the aphorism that the Church grows from the blood of the martyrs. This interpretation is also provided in the NAB note at the USCCB website, which states, “The meaning of this difficult saying is probably that the opponents of Jesus are trying to prevent people from accepting the kingdom and to snatch it away from those who have received it.”
Pope John Paul II referenced the verse in his 1979 encyclical Redemptor hominis. In section 11 of the letter, John Paul discusses the mystery of Christ as the basis of the Church’s mission and of Christianity. The Holy Father notes that “the mission seems to encounter greater opposition nowadays than ever before,” and salvation and grace are linked with the Cross in the mystery of the divine economy. “It was not without reason that Christ said that ‘the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force.’” He goes on to write, “We gladly accept this rebuke, that we may be like those ‘violent people of God’ that we have so often seen in the history of the Church and still see today, and that we may consciously join in the great mission of revealing Christ to the world. John Paul appears to start out with the second interpretation (violence to the kingdom), but then shifts to the first interpretation (violence for the kingdom).
If I really want to know what’s going on in this little snippet of scripture, there are a few things I can do. First, I have to keep in mind the context. John is in prison, and he has sent his disciples to Jesus to ask him if he is the messiah. After telling them (without actually telling them) that he is indeed the One, he sends them off, then addresses the crowd concerning John. The question that needs to be answered is whether John, the eccentric aesthetic in the desert, or Herod, the man responsible for imprisoning John, is practicing the violence to which Jesus is referring. Is it possible that Jesus is contrasting Herod in the first clause with John in the second?
A lot has been written about what Jesus means when he refers to the “kingdom of heaven” in the gospels. Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Jesus of Nazareth, argues for a Christocentric meaning: the kingdom of heaven refers to the incarnate person of Christ himself. That meaning might not fit in all places where the phrase is used. To be thorough, we would have to cross-reference every other use of the phrase in the gospel of Matthew.
It could come down to a matter of language and translation. The NAB and RSV translations both say that the kingdom suffers violence. An English-Greek concordance should provide the actual words used in the Greek for “suffer” and “violence”, along with any other places in scripture where those same word are used.
Finally, there should be some commentary available for just what Pope John Paul II means when he praised those violent people of God. I am fairly certain that he was not praising those who resort to physical violence in the name of religion.