Today’s reading from Matthew 11:11-15 seems like a simple one. But I assure you that when combined with the rest of Chapter 11 it is a most complex one.
Let’s begin with the text.
Jesus is instructing the crowds about John the Baptist. “I solemnly assure you, history has not known a man born of woman greater than John the Baptizer. Yet the least born into the kingdom of God is greater than he. From John the Baptizer’s time until now the kingdom of God has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. All the prophets as well as the law spoke prophetically until John. If you are prepared to accept it, he is Elijah, the one who was certain to come.”
Here the reading seems to instruct us that John the Baptist and the prophets before him were foretelling of Jesus’ coming. And so in this particular section it is.
I always advise reading the whole chapter surrounding a reading to get Jesus’ full meaning.
Before this section, Jesus is asked by John the Baptist’s disciples if Jesus is “He who is to come?” And Jesus sends them back to John affirming that he is. As John’s messengers leave Jesus turns to the gathered crowd to speak of John the Baptist. “What did you go out to the wasteland to see,” he asks, “a reed swaying in the wind? Tell me, what did you go out to see – someone luxuriously dressed? Remember, those who dress luxuriously are to be found in royal palaces. Why then did you go out – to see a prophet? A prophet indeed, and something more! It is about this man that Scripture says, ‘I send my messenger ahead of you to prepare your way before you.'”
And after the section for today’s reading, Jesus warns the crowd, “Heed carefully what you hear!” And he goes on.
“What comparison can I use to describe this breed? They are like children squatting in the town squares, calling to their playmates: “We piped you a tune but you did not dance! We sang you a dirge but you did not wail!”
“In other words, John appeared neither eating nor drinking, and people say, ‘He is mad!’ The Son of Man appeared eating and drinking, and they say, ‘This one is a glutton and drunkard, a lover of tax collectors and those outside the law!’ Yet time will prove where wisdom lies.“
And then Jesus goes on to call out the towns where he had worked most of his miracles but where they had not responded to his ministry. It ends with a beautiful prayer to His Father.
So what are we to make of all this? Jesus was legitimizing the role of John the Baptist to precede Jesus’ coming as the savior. And at the same time, Jesus was warning the people in the crowd about those in positions of power, especially in the Church and the Church community, who coerce the faithful for their own ends. People who dress luxuriously are to be found in royal palaces – places of power. The least born into the kingdom of God are greater than John the Baptist – he frequently points out that those who are like children are closest to him and that the least among us shall be the greatest among us (the last shall be first and the first shall be last).
Jesus is the savior and he was announced in Jesus’ time by the prophet, John the Baptizer. We have many today who try to act as prophets dressed in fine clothes and proclaiming many things in Jesus name, but do they do it to the glory of God or for their own glory and power? Are they saving souls or building bank accounts? Are they predicting the second coming of Christ or legitimizing their own ministry? Are they calling out the sinful or making a name for themselves?
Perhaps the most insightful lines of all are Jesus’ exhortation to “Heed carefully what you hear” and that last line, “Time will prove where wisdom lies.”
This morning when I woke up, God whispered soothingly to me, “Fear not.” And when I came in to read today’s readings, the beginning to Isaiah 41:13 was
“I am the LORD, your God,
who grasp your right hand;
It is I who say to you, ‘Fear not,
I will help you.’”
How comforting is that!