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Father Richard Kunst: John the Baptist was the greatest, but you are greater

Everybody likes to receive a compliment. It is nice to be affirmed in how we look, how we are doing at work or in school, or any other activity that might take a level of talent. 

Father Richard Kunst

Unfortunately, that is not how God works. Admittedly it would be pretty cool to get the occasional message from God telling us we are doing a good job at life, but that simply does not happen. 

Actually, though, God has given compliments in the past, because Jesus is God, right? There is a passage in the Gospel where Jesus gives perhaps the greatest compliment imaginable. Speaking of John the Baptist, he says, “I solemnly assure you, history has not known a man born of woman greater than John the Baptizer” (Matthew 11:11a). That is a doozy of a compliment, and it is even greater considering it is coming from God. 

Imagine if God said you were the greatest cook in human history or the greatest baseball player in human history. That would be pretty impressive, but to have God call you the greatest person in history is mind blowing. Jesus is stating that John the Baptist is greater than all the amazing people of the Old Testament, greater than Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and King David. 

You might remember this passage fairly clearly, since just last month we had the season of Advent, and in Advent John the Baptist looms large. This compliment passage showed up a couple of times between the weekday and Sunday readings. If you remember, you know that Jesus does not stop there. He actually continues by saying something that might very well be one of the more confusing and cryptic passages in the Gospels. In the second half of the same verse, immediately after giving John the Baptist the mother of all compliments, he says, “… yet the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he” (Mathew 11:11b). 

In order to understand what Jesus is saying, we should know that the No. 1 message of Christ’s teaching and preaching in each of the four Gospels was the coming of the Kingdom of God/Heaven. In all four Gospels it is what Jesus spends the most time talking about. “The Kingdom of God is upon you.” “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” “To what shall I compare the Kingdom of God?” “The Kingdom of God is like ….” And over and over again. 

So what exactly is the Kingdom of God? It is the church. Christ came to establish his church. This is why we are not Jewish like he was; we are Christians because we are members of the church he established. 

So think about the import of what Jesus is saying here, that John the Baptist is the greatest ever, but the least member of the church is greater than he. How can this be? How can the least among us be greater than John? What does the Christian have that John the Baptist was lacking? Knowledge of the cross, who exactly is on it, and what happened next. 

John the Baptist died before Jesus was crucified, but even more important than that, John did not have clear knowledge as to who Jesus really was. He had a strong suspicion that he was the Christ, but while John was in prison he sent some of his disciples to Jesus to make sure. Yet even beyond that, even if John knew as a fact that Jesus was the Christ, there was no clear knowledge that the Christ would actually be God the Son, so John the Baptist could never know the infinite depth and breadth of God’s love for us, that God would send his very Son and that his Son would be crucified on our behalf, only to rise again so that we would have the chance to be with him in heaven forever. 

That reality, which we all take for granted, is something that was never revealed to John. As great as he was, he was lacking in something we all unfortunately take for granted. 

It is amazing to think that we know more about the nature of God than even John the Baptist knew, and that is why Jesus added the cryptic line that as great as John was, “the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.” 

Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected].