“I’m telling you the truth: John the Baptist is the greatest mother’s son there ever was. But even the least significant person in heaven’s kingdom is greater than he is.” Matthew 11:11 (translation is N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone)
It can almost sound like Jesus is paying his buddy from birth a backhanded compliment here. Sure, John may be an exceptional prophet. He may even be an Elijah (11:14). As one who gestures to the coming kingdom of God, calling on God’s people to repent from his post in the wilderness, John stands in a long line of Jewish truth tellers; and like any good prophet, he is about to be killed for his message. In only a short time his head will be served on a platter to Herod Antipas in exchange for a stripper’s cheap tricks.
But “if you think John is great, you ‘ain’t seen nothing yet,’ now that I’m here,” Jesus seems to be saying. And there is a sense in which our impression is true. Jesus is paying his quirky cousin with the hair shirt and a palate for locusts and honey a very big compliment with a twist. He is dispensing high praise with a curve ball at the end of it.
Because for as much as John has faithfully lived out a life under God’s rule, he has yet to see the fulfillment of the kingdom of God. John’s career is ending just as Jesus’ has begun. John has caught glimpses of that kingdom, a divine order in which the blind see, the lame walk and those in bondage are set free, but he has yet to see the full implications of a “God with us.” He has yet to catch the full meaning of a God who dwells with God’s people in the person of Jesus Christ. He will not live to see Jesus crucified as one “high and lifted up,” parodied as “the King of the Jews;” nor will he witness the empty tomb and the resurrected Christ.
And now it is as if Jesus is saying that all that John has pointed to is here in the flesh. So that all that John represents, in the way of the prophets and the law and centuries of talking and dreaming about a time when God will dwell among God’s people, is incredibly important and meaningful because it has anticipated this “God-with-us” moment in Jesus. Apart from Jesus, John, the prophets and the law are not inconsequential; they represent the greatest human efforts to incarnate God’s love and care for creation; but in the god-man Jesus their truth finds its greatest, fullest, realest embodiment.
And in this new divine order that God is unleashing in the person of Jesus, the “least” of those who see what God is doing and join God there are “greater” than John the Baptist. The “least” of those who meet Jesus and get to know Him- and in doing so fall in love with and hitch their lives to a God who never gives up on us and loves us to the end and beyond- will be “greater” in the kingdom than John the Baptist.
What a wild, unfathomable mystery- that in Jesus the kingdom of God is fulfilled, that in Jesus, we discover God’s kingdom over and over again, that in Jesus, we can be there with each new moment, as if being reborn again and again to the Spirit-breathed reality around us. My gratitude for this gift is beyond words. Even so I still can’t help feeling a little sorry for the guy in the hair shirt.