As an amateur biblical scholar, I know that you aren’t ever to conflate the various Gospels for a “whole” picture. Yet, as a believer, one does end up trying to reconcile that which appears to be in conflict.
Thus, I have always wondered about John the Baptist. We are told that his sensitivity to the Messiah was so strong that he “left in his mother’s womb” when he sensed Jesus in the womb of his mother Mary. (Luke 1: 39-45)
We are told in Mark that after baptizing Jesus, he was presumably present to see the “heavens torn apart” and a “Spirit like a dove descending upon him.” (Mark 1:9-11) In Matthew, John protests that it is Jesus who should be baptizing him. (Mt 3: 13-17)
But in Matthew, (11:2-11) our gospel for today, we learn a curious thing: John sends his disciples to inquire of Jesus if in fact he was the Messiah, the chosen one. Jesus lauds John, calling him the highest of all the prophets and then says, “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
This all is quite confusing to me. How could John ever doubt that Jesus was the One when he leapt for joy in Elizabeth’s womb when Jesus appeared still unborn? Why would he, after hearing of the healings Jesus had done, still doubt? When he saw the heavens rent, and saw the dove descend?
The message, I think should give us all much hope. For we doubt too. We all do. We must. For we cannot and do not KNOW. That is why we have faith. We BELIEVE.
John undoubtedly was aware that Jesus’ so-called miracles were not such things. In fact Mark never calls them miracles at all. Such actions, were not in that day, so fantastic as to be declared miracles. People in that time lived closer shall we say to the dividing line between seen and unseen. All things were from God, so what can be miraculous.
Still, Jesus’ healings were wondrous, and people exclaimed about them, and they can to him to be healed. That did not make him, however, the Messiah necessarily.
Still, we return to that leaping in the womb and we must conclude that John must have seen that as unusual, and predictive. He spoke during his ministry of “one coming after me” one he was “unworthy to untie the sandals of.”
This was a bigger statement than I realized. Rabbis were heard to claim that their disciples owed them every thing, except to untie their sandals. That was taking discipleship too far. Yet John, not only claims that this was not too much to ask from the Anointed One, but that he was unworthy to the task.
Yet John struggled with faith. Imprisoned, he questioned his own eyes and ears, his own instincts.
We, you and me, we who are “modern” have generally speaking no event to recall, of tearing heavens and doves descending. We, most of us, have no shuddering certainty that we are in the presence of something beyond mere human making. Is it any wonder we fail in faith?
And thus we can have hope that our failings will be forgiven, for John’s surely was. Jesus acclaims him the greatest of all the prophets. He is Elijah, and more. And with all that, Jesus can still acknowledge with generosity and tenderness, that even with all that, John is the least of those in the kingdom.
For, Jesus has told us as well, that children come to him with perfect faith. They are prepared to believe in what they cannot see or know. They are willing to suspend human questions, the ones I struggle with. They don’t ask to understand. They simply believe.
And Jesus tells us that if we can come to him in that way, then our faith is perfect. And that will place us before John. Blessed are they who have not heard or seen, but still believe. Blessed is the centurion, who is a pagan, yet believes with perfect faith that Jesus can heal. These are our role models, the ones that Jesus reminds us to look to as we journey to God.
I am indebted to The Word Among Us, December 12, and Mark: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, by William C. Placher (which I will be reviewing here in a few days), for some of the insights here.
- Jesus’ Answer to the Disciples of John & the Dead Sea Scrolls (Sunday’s Reading) (thesacredpage.com)