A Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11
Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC
December 11, 2022
It’s easy for us to lose track of this, over two thousand years of Christianity, but John the Baptist casts a longer shadow in his own right than most of us know.
The Sabian or Mandaen gnostic sect, which is roughly as old as Christianity, holds that John the Baptist is the final and greatest prophet of God’s revelation, as Brikhah Nasoraia explains in his 2012 article “Sacred Text and Esoteric Praxis in Sabian Mandaean Religion,” (pp. 44-46.)
Persecuted by Saddam Hussein and his successors in power in Iraq, Madaens fled to Austalia, Europe, and the United States, and still baptize in much the same way as John did in the Jordan.
In the writings of Flavius Josephus, the Romanized Jewish historian, Jesus and John the Baptist appear near each other. In his book The Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus discusses Jesus briefly, in a passage which the historian John P. Meier argues has later Christian interpolations describing the Resurrection, and calling Jesus the Son of God—terms that would be foreign to the Jewish Josephus. Book 8, Ch. 3. 87-9. Here is what the text says, whether authentic or not:
“Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man; for he was a doer of wonderful works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, 9 those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day; 10 as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him. And the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”
John the Baptist gets a longer and far more detailed description, in Book 8 chapter 5:
Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, that was called the Baptist: for Herod slew him, who was a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness.
Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were very greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion, [for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise,] thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it would be too late.
Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Macherus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him. [Antiquities, Bk. 8, ch. 5.]
No Salome in this account, nor imprisonment and execution at the instigation of Herodias, but simply a fearful tyrant dispatching a man who had become too influential for the tyrant’s well-being. The routine cruelty of power preserving itself by any means necessary.
Josephus generally writes in chronological order, so it’s a little confusing that he has Jesus appear before John.
Now, the disparities between these accounts does not mean that one invalidates the other. Josephus was writing after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD—several decades after the lives of John and Jesus, the events he’s describing. He wrote what he knew, what he could find credible accounts of. Even modern history can be terribly hit-or-miss, as witness the debates about Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More, each of whom has his detractors and admirers.
What these stories are is our best confirmation that Jesus and John were known even outside of the accounts of the apostles, that they clearly existed, and, from what they say, the two men are not all that different from how understand them.
In today’s Gospel Jesus interacts with John’s disciples and with the crowds who have come to hear Jesus.
John, imprisoned by Herod, has been hearing things about Jesus, and, knowing that his time is short, needs to know whether his task is truly well, and round, and done, or if he has been in error. So he sends his disciples to Jesus, and they ask him straight out: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus doesnt answer directly, but the answer he sends to John must surely have relieved the prophet’s anxiety: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
John’s disciples return to him, with the good news that he has not spent his life in vain, that he has not failed.
And then Jesus does something unexpected. He eulogizes John, gives the crowd a valedictory of his predecessor, reminding the crowds that John was not one who followed the safe route—he was not a reed that bent to every wind. Neither was he a man of status, wearing gorgeous robes—you don’t go out into the wilderness to see such men; they are to be found in palaces, and John, in his camel’s hair was hardly one for palaces or luxury.
Again and again, Jesus asks the crowd, “What did you go out to see?” He causes them to reflect on John and his ministry, to recall what it was in him that moved them, that drew them from their daily lives to join John in the wilderness, to be baptized, to renounce greed and to claim better lives for themselves.
And in the memories Jesus has summoned of John, he asks one last question: “What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’”
As Jesus tells it, Jesus is a prophet, and more than a prophet. He is the last prophet of the old tradition of Israel, the last prophet to point to what is yet coming to fruition in the world. John’s mission reaches its fruition—and in him, the prophetic tradition reaches its culmination, its consummation.
And yet, this valedictory is not all praise of John. Yes, Jesus tells us that “truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
What to make of this? What does it mean that the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John?
Well, for one thing, John never claimed greatness for himself; he famously described himself as being unworthy to tie the thong of Jesus’s sandals, and later said that just as Jesus must increase, so John himself must decrease.
John was part of an old order, an old tradition, the last prophet after the 400 years since Micah. In that sense, John was the last beam of a setting sun, and had played his part in the inauguration of the Kingdom of Heaven. To be least in the kingdom of heaven is to be native to, at home in, the new order, one that is still being born in our old world, as we, each in our own small way, strive to bring it into its full flower.
Like John, we ourselves claim a small part in that becoming, but we do not yet fully live in it. And yet our hope, our Christian hope, tells us that we will, just like that cross-grained, brusque Baptist who gave so much, even his very life..
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.