What are we to make of this mysterious sentence of our Lord Jesus: “Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”?
It is easy to understand the first part, for truly among those born of women in the normal way, there was never a greater than John. Think of his fierce devotion to God. Think of how little he cared for the approval of others, who cared only for the approval of His master in heaven. Think of the greatness of His humility, that when his disciples came and complained to him that Jesus drew greater crowds, St. John meekly confessed: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Think of his devotion to the ascetic life, and how he lived in the wilderness on that strange diet of locusts and wild honey, drinking neither wine nor strong drink. Think of his Elijah-like clothes. Think of how he called on one and all to repent and turn from sins, and welcome the Kingdom. Think of how he warned those who thought they could sneak into the kingdom of God and yet remain slaves to their sinful appetites to bear fruits befitting repentance. Think most of all of how he pointed with joy to our Lord Jesus and announced that here was the true Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
As Jesus challenged the people to think of John, he asked: “What did you go out to the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind.” No, they would have answered, a mighty oak planted by the streams of God’s word that brought forth its fruit in due season and whose leaf did not wither.
“What did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothes? Behold, those who wear soft clothes are in kings’ houses.” No, not a man wearing soft clothes, but a man wearing the rough garments of an ascetic.
“What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, and more than a prophet.” Jesus teaches us that John is the greatest and the last of the Old Testament prophets. He is the specially appointed messenger sent before the face of God’s Son to prepare his way. He is the finger who points the world unerringly to the Lamb of God for the forgiveness of sins.
And yet Jesus says: “the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” What can this mean? You and I, greater than John the Baptist?
Yes. Not in our persons, but in the greatness of what God’s gifts to us. For although John was sent on the once in all of history task of being the point-man for the Lamb of God, he never tasted in this age and life the fullness of what His Lord was coming to do. John was never baptized into the name of the Holy Trinity as you have been, making you the abode of the Blessed God. It was never given to John to hear the words of absolution pronounced in the holy name of Jesus – an absolution anchored in the work of the cross. For John died before the offering of our Lord upon the cross for our sins; he died before the resurrection of the Lord Jesus brought about the defeat of death. John never knew the unspeakable joys that you know when you eat and drink faithfully in the Eucharist the holy body and blood of the Lord Jesus, and so become a partaker of the divine nature. John never knew such joys. For he was the last of those about whom the apostle wrote:
“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them from afar and having acknowledged that they were strangers and aliens on earth… Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” (Heb 11:13,16)
And again: “They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute afflicted, mistreated – of whom the world was not worthy – wandering about in deserts and mountains and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God has provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” (Heb. 12:37-40)
What John welcomed and hailed in Jesus, he died before he got to taste, and so Jesus can say that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Does that not move you to gratitude and praise? You are given gifts that John the Baptist and all the prophets longed and ached for and yet never received in this life.
Does that not lead you to humble repentance when you think how often you, like Esau have despised the birth-right that you have been given in the Lord Jesus? How little you think of your Baptism, of His Word, of His Supper? These are the sacred gifts of God that bestow upon you a greater status than John ever knew! For by your Baptism you have received, He who became what you are by nature causes you to become what He is by grace: you become divine, a child of God! You are endowed with the Kingdom which is to come. And as often as you wish it, you may come and hear the holy absolution, as the keys of the kingdom are exercised and the gate to heaven swings wide to welcome you home. And as often as you need it, you may approach the holy table and feast on the very Lamb of God to whom John pointed. The Lamb of God who took your sins to death on the tree and now gives His own body and blood into you as the gift of forgiveness and divine life. Yes, you are greater than John, not in your persons, but in God’s dispensation, in the giving of His gifts.
Thanks to You, O Lord, for You have bestowed such unimagined greatness on us poor sinners! Forgive us for despising Your gifts! Grant us grace to cherish always the awesome greatness to which You have raised in Your Kingdom through our Lord Jesus Christ, making us truly Your children, brothers and sisters of Christ, and coheirs of eternal glory. Amen.