Pictured above is St. John the Baptist Preaching, c. 1665, by Mattia Preti.
Commentary on Matthew 11:11 by Bishop Peter Rosazza, Eastern Connecticut Area. Click here to listen to this talk from June’s Spiritual Outreach Call.
Jesus said: “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
- Our Malta Prayer
- The context is important. Read Cpt. 11: 2-15 (NIV)
2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples
3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”
4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see:
5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy[a] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
7 As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed swayed by the wind?
8 If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces.
9 Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
10 This is the one about whom it is written: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’[b]
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
- Let’s divide this verse into two parts – “Truly I tell you…” and “yet…”
- Why is this true? For many reasons:
- He was sanctified in his mother’s womb at the moment of the VISITATION, when Mary greeted Elisabeth. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (Luke 1:39-45)
- Consequently as we know, the Birth of John the Baptist is celebrated as a solemnity – only one other, Jesus… not even Mary.
- Why the 24th of June? SO JOHN AND JESUS ARE COUSINS!
- We must live the mystery of the Visitation because we too are Christ-bearers, Christophers.
We don’t hear any more about John until he goes into the desert and baptizes. Mark 1 “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,[a] the Son of God,[b] 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.
- Important: John knows his place. He is humble. More about that later.
- What did he do to get ready for his most important ministry of preparing the people for the Lord?
- A theory – Essenes – Qumran – These people believed that the Temple authorities were corrupt and went to the Dead Sea in the 2nd century BCE to live the Mosaic Law and the teachings of the Scribes in a strict manner. Community – men, women and children.
- John must have believed he was called to groom himself in this way and, moved by God from within his heart, he went out to begin his work, knowing how demanding it would be.
- John was a prophet – whose main work was to teach and bring the people back to the basics of their faith – love of God and neighbor (Dt. VI… Lv. 19)
7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.
9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah.
16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with[a] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire.
17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”
18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.
19 But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done,
20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.”
- Let’s analyze this text. (a) John tells it like it is. He is not a reed shaken by the wind! (b) Love your neighbor – treat people with kindness… “Let there be no poor among you.” (Deut. 10) (c) He has no fear of criticizing anyone, including soldiers. (d) And even Herod (Antipas, son of Herod the so-called Great who had the Innocents slaughtered) Like the Theater of the Absurd – John dies a martyr’s death – baptism by blood. His objective: the conversion of his listeners
- Before this John sends a delegation to ask Jesus, “Are you the one to come…” John expected the Messiah to end the world, judge everyone, reward the faithful and punish the wicked. Jesus shows by his answer that he is not a wrathful Messiah. “God so loved the world…” “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard…”
- One of John’s greatest moments: Gospel of John 3:30 – His disciples tell him people are leaving us for Jesus. John is the “best man” but Jesus is the groom. “He must increase and I must decrease.”
- So important in our growth in the likeness of Jesus – Adam and Eve: their sin, disobedience because they wanted STATUS, PRESTIGE, to be like God. John on the contrary knows his place – he could have caused a schism but did not – like Nelson Mandela, Gorbachev…
- His death – He is confused, yet he trusts in his God and goes to his death without the benefit of knowing that Jesus will suffer and die and then RISE FROM THE DEAD.
- For us: John was faithful even in the darkness preceding his death. Also, he was authentic, sincere. What you saw was what you got!
- This is where we concentrate on the other part of that verse: “Yet whoever is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.”
- John, our Patron, was a great man in so many aspects, a prophet we are called to listen to and imitate. However those who followed Jesus and then those who believed in him because of his teaching and were baptized, enter the Kingdom of Heaven as have we, whereas John was the precursor and died on the threshold of the Kingdom. All that is grace – we did nothing to merit it. Now Jesus calls us to live like himself, to imitate him and the virtues of the saints like John, in our everyday lives.
- Jesus doesn’t leave us on our own – he sends us the Holy Spirit who gives us his gifts: Thus, we can say with St. Paul, “I live, now not so much I, but Christ lives in me.
- In any event, he, John, is venerated as a Saint who enjoys the bliss of Heaven where he continues to pray for us and admonish us with those timeless words, “He must increase…” Amen.