Ask Father: July 2019

I’ve never understood this Bible passage from Matthew 11:12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force.” – Hugh from Massachusetts

Dear Hugh,

This passage from Matthew reads with a certain harshness to our ears, especially considering the plethora of passages that portray the contrary image of meekness as the model of Christian virtue. “A quiet and a meek spirit which is rich in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:4; cf. James 1:21; 1 Corinthians 4:21). Moreover, Christ explicitly commands meekness: “Learn of me, because I am meek and humble of heart” (Matthew 11:29), and even enrolls it in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:4).

But the passivity in the above passages is only one face of Christian warfare. As Josef Pieper says,

There lies a broad field of active worldly endeavor and the struggle for the realization of the good against the opposition of stupidity, laziness, blindness and malevolence. Christ Himself… whose earthly life was entirely permeated and formed by His readiness for sacrificial death, to which He went “like a lamb to the slaughter”—Christ drove the money-changers from the temple with a whip.[1]

The kingdom of heaven is not attained by a weak, unresponsive, victim-oriented psyche, but rather a robust combative vigor is required for certain situations. The warrior image resides behind St. Paul’s lists of military armaments (Romans 13:12; 2 Corinthians 6:7; Ephesians 6:13-17). Albeit, we must always bear in mind that this warfare is primarily spiritual. “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty to God, unto the pulling down of fortifications, destroying counsels, and every height that exalts itself against God; bringing into captivity every understanding unto the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). Very often the combat required is against the flesh—“I so fight, not as one beating the air. But I chastise my body and bring it into subjection” (1 Corinthians 9:26-27). Christian life requires tremendous effort against all things which impede discipleship to Christ. It is a violent affair analogous to warfare. Thus, St. Paul’s final farewell to Timothy should be no surprise to us: “I have fought a good fight” (2 Timothy 4:7).

Though the word violence strikes us with force, its proper understanding is in the above citations. Not as something opposed to meekness, but as something that is required by the virtue of meekness. One must not let fear or despair forestall grace and sanctification. Some situations require forbearance, yet not all…“if thy hand, or thy foot, scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee” (a violent image indeed!). “It is better for thee to go into life maimed or lame, than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into everlasting fire” (Matthew 18:8).[2]

The key to the passage resides in the timeframe Christ places as an introduction, i.e., “From the days of John the Baptist until now.” Turn to the Baptist to understand the spiritual sense of “men of violence.” The Baptist was himself a dynamo, explosive and bursting in energy. According to Jerome, the symbol of Mark’s Gospel is a lion precisely because it commences with the voice of the
Baptist “roaring” in the wilderness: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” (Mark 1:3).[3] The life of the Baptist was an example of what he preached. The Baptist lived a life of penance and proclaimed in earnest the necessity for his fellow men to repent, not only in words, “confessing their sins,” but also in deeds—“You brood of vipers!…bring forth fruit worthy of penance” (Matthew 3:8).

That voice which echoed in the hostile desert did not fall on deaf ears. Many repented in earnest, some eventually became apostles (Andrew and possibly John, cf. John 1:37-40). From the commencement of the Baptist’s preaching, Heaven was being stormed by those who heeded his message and as St. Jerome says, “There is great violence involved when we who have been born on the earth seek to possess a heavenly home through virtue.”[4]

The voice of the Baptist reverberates through the centuries and continues to teach. It moved St. Antony (†356) to flee into the desert. And upon hearing of St. Antony’s story a young Augustine (†430) seized his friend and cried out, “What is wrong with us? What is this? What heardest thou? The unlearned start up and ‘take’ heaven, and we, with our learning, but wanting heart, see where we wallow in flesh and blood!” Moments later Augustine converted and—after seizing Christ—would clutch the gates of heaven, even to his last breath.

Though a body nourished on locusts and honey was certainly emaciated, the Baptist remained unbent and his life was constantly colored with uncompromising confrontation, from pharisees to kings. Ironically, the Baptist who encouraged others to war, not against other men but against their own sins, suffered violence of the earthly sort at the end. Indomitable, even in prison and under the headsman’s axe, he violently grasped up toward Heaven and pointed others in the same direction (Matthew 11:2ff.). His head was laid low, yet no man greater has been born of woman (cf. Matthew 11:11). We would do well to heed his call, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand—and it only yields to the violent. +

Regnum coelorum suffers violence gladly
from fervent love, from vibrant hope—
only these powers can defeat God’s will:

not in the way one man conquers another,
for That will [God’s] wills its own defeat, and so
defeated it defeats through its own mercy.
Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, Canto XX, 94-99

Answered by:
Fr. Dominic Savoie, Assistant Pastor, FSSP Sacramento

  1. Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues, 131-132.
  2. As a side note, there is no historical evidence of maimed one-eyed Christians processing
    through the centuries—save one suspected incident (Origen). This should serve as a
    warning against gross literal interpretation of Scripture and the necessity of reading it
    through tradition.
  3. According to Jerome, see Homily 75.1 and Commentary on Matthew, preface.
  4. Jerome, Commentary on Matthew, ed. Thomas P. Halton, trans. Thomas P. Scheck,
    vol. 117, The Fathers of the Church (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of
    America Press, 2008), 131–132.

July 15, 2019