and the violent take it by force.
If I had ever managed to find time to take the divinity school course on “Troubling New Testament Texts,” I would have lobbied to include today’s Gospel passage on the syllabus. Its difficulty arises in part from the ambiguities of translation. Depending on how the Greek root is interpreted, we can read “violence” as a positive characterization of the intense zeal of John the Baptist in his role as precursor and prophet of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Flannery O’Connor, whose novel The Violent Bear It Away takes its title from Matthew’s text, subscribed to this interpretation. Writing to a longtime correspondent who was an English professor at Georgia State, Ms. O’Connor bridled at her readers’ misinterpretation of this verse (and of her novel): “That this is the violence of love, of giving more than the law demands, of an asceticism like John the Baptist’s…—all this is overlooked.”
Seen this way, “violence” is self-denial on overdrive. Service to Christ becomes like an extreme sport: edgy, dangerous, unnerving to watch. But it also tugs at us to go beyond the routine of our daily faith practices, to expand the possibilities of discipleship past the boundary of the accustomed. Perhaps we could pray aloud with a friend for the first time, or finally sign up for that shift at the soup kitchen, or incorporate a new spiritual practice such as meditation or fasting into our lives. While we may never attain the intensity of those who would truly do anything for Christ, we can benefit from the example of their willingness to throw themselves fully into his service.
O LORD Most High, giver of all gifts, Grant me the courage to push beyond my own self-prescribed limits so that I may love and serve you to the utmost. Amen.
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