As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written:
'Behold, I send My messenger before Your face,
Who will prepare Your way before You.'
"Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"
- Matthew 11:7-15
Yesterday, we read that when Jesus finished commanding His twelve disciples, that He departed from there to teach and to preach in their cities. And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, "Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?" Jesus answered and said to them, "Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me."
As they departed, Jesus began to say to the multitudes concerning John: "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man clothed in soft garments? Indeed, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and more than a prophet. For this is he of whom it is written: 'Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You.'" The quotation is from the prophesy of Malachi (3:1). Jesus is explaining John the Baptist's role in Jewish spiritual history, his important role in salvation history as herald to the Messiah. John's life one was spent in extreme asceticism and complete devotion to his mission given by God, a true prophet and, in Jesus' telling, the greatest among the prophets. It's important that we understand how greatly revered John was as a holy man in his own time, and that reverence is upheld by Jesus. But it is a time of transition.
"Assuredly, I say to you, among those born of women there has not risen one greater than John the Baptist; but he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." Under the Old Covenant, John is the greatest in the lineage of Old Testament prophets under the Law. But Jesus brings something new into the world. This is not a comparison of John the Baptist to others, nor is it a statement saying John will not enter into the kingdom. It is rather a message of the gift of the New Covenant, that which is initiated by the Messiah to whom John was the prophet and forerunner. My study bible explains that the New Covenant is of such incomparable value that those who share in it are greater than John was without it.
"And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force." There are varied interpretations of this statement by Jesus that the kingdom of heaven suffers violence. Some say it refers to the Jewish opposition to the gospel. Others claim it refers to the Kingdom breaking into the world "violently," in other words with great force and power. Another interpretation says that the kingdom of heaven refers to Christ Himself, incarnate since the days of John the Baptist, and who will suffer violence Himself at the Cross. St. John Chrysostom comments that the violent who take the Kingdom by force are those who have such an earnest desire for Christ that they let nothing stand between themselves and faith in Him.
"For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" John has not claimed for himself the role of Elijah (see John 1:21), but Jesus proclaims him to be Elijah who is to come. He fulfilled the mission of Elijah (Luke 1:17, 76) and has a similar destiny. John, however, is honored even over Elijah, because it is John who prepares the way for the advent of Christ. In the Baptist is fulfilled the prophecy that Elijah was to come before the Messiah.
John the Baptist is now in prison, and Jesus has sent word via John's disciples that He is the "Coming One" (see yesterday's reading). It is a time of transition, a trading off of the old for the new -- the New Covenant, the gospel of the Kingdom, coming into the world. But this does not diminish John, and John's role in the coming of the Kingdom and the proclamation of preparation for the Christ. Jesus is making it clear in today's reading what is happening, explaining His place in what is happening, and John's place. It is again a paradoxical image to try to understand: this Man, Christ, teaching the people what monumental change is happening. We remember Jesus' words teaching that "the kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:20-21). And yet something extraordinary and monumental is happening, a shift in history -- indeed, in the spiritual history of the Jews and of the world. The transition between John and Jesus is the telling of that story and of that unfolding. How can people understand it and grasp it? John, by Jesus' telling, isn't a person in soft clothing who walks in the grandeur and pomp of a king's house. He was a man like Elijah, living in the wilderness in ascetic poverty, totally and wholly dedicated to his mission from God: a rough man; if you will, akin to a homeless person, living outside the society in order to be radically free to live his mission as prophet, clothed in animal skin and leather. But Jesus tells the crowds that since the time of the Baptist, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence -- in the ways that kingdoms do when they are seized and entered into -- and that the violent, the rough, those who do not live in king's houses, are taking it by force. Who are those who are "marching" into the Kingdom? Jesus has chosen working men for His apostles, and has just sent them out on their first mission. This is not a kingdom of the effete and superior in worldly rank, but rather one of those whose zeal for the things of God becomes an entry pass, a capacity for admission. For all John's "roughness" it is he who stayed the course and is greatest among the prophets in his role as the one who declares the coming of the Messiah and the Kingdom. Those entering into the Kingdom must be those like John, who let nothing keep them from it and from the recognition of this tremendous and valuable gift. It is the love of God that truly allows us in to receive and to know its surpassing value above all things, even above dwelling in kings' houses. It is that strength of devotion that becomes the passport to living in this Kingdom, carrying it within us, being a part of it as we are a part of the world, and this -- it seems to me -- is the message of Christ in today's reading. He's asking us all if we're prepared to meet this calling, this active life of the Kingdom, this place where faith plays the greatest role and gives us our strength. Jesus and John are quite different figures, but in tomorrow's reading Jesus will go on to explain how they both play their roles for the Kingdom, and how we are to see them both.