by Father Mike Stubbs
When someone wishes to challenge me, I prefer that they do so in person rather than going through a third party. It is more honest. That is not what we see in Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mt 11:2-11. In it, John the Baptist challenges Jesus’ qualifications as the Messiah. But he does not do so directly.
On the other hand, John has a good excuse. John has misgivings about Jesus, but is unable to investigate them personally because he is in prison. That is why he sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we seek another?”
The Gospel’s mentioning of the prison is significant, because John will never leave it alive. He soon will be executed. His beheading serves as his last act of testimony to the truth. He dared to criticize King Herod and will pay for that criticism with his life.
The Gospels present John as a courageous speaker of the truth. At the same time, Sunday’s Gospel reading points out that even John the Baptist did not possess the truth entirely. That is why John hesitates about Jesus.
Frankly, Jesus disappointed John. John expected the Messiah to preach fire and brimstone, not words of compassion like the Beatitudes (Mt 5:3- 12.) John expected the Messiah to show God’s wrath, not works of mercy, the miracles of healing Jesus performed.
John’s understanding of Jesus is incomplete. As important as John’s testimony about Jesus was, more was needed. That more will be supplied through the teaching of Jesus and his disciples.
That is why Jesus pays John ambiguous compliments in Sunday’s Gospel reading. On one hand, Jesus praises John’s courage through rhetorical questions: “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?” (The unspoken answer forms in our mind: “No, John was a mighty oak.”)
Similarly, Jesus asks, “Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing?” (The unspoken answer forms in our mind: “No, John was dressed in camel hair.”) That rhetorical question praises John’s asceticism, as well as his refusal to pander to the king, as did the courtiers of Herod “Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.”
Jesus highly praises John: “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.” On the other hand, Jesus qualifies his compliment; “Yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
By those words, Jesus is not excluding John the Baptist from heaven and consigning him to eternal damnation. Rather, Jesus is referring to the work of the disciples and the early church in establishing God’s kingdom. They are supplying what was lacking in John’s work.
For example, John misunderstood Jesus’ mission. The disciples of Jesus and the early church are able to correct that misunderstanding and give us the full picture of the Messiah. Even though John made a significant contribution, it was not enough by itself.
This story about John the Baptist provides us with a good lesson in humility. It reminds us that none of us have a monopoly upon the truth. We need one another in our journey toward the truth. We need the church.
Father Stubbs is the pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Lansing.