It's the last line of Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 11:2-11) that sticks with me: "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 does Jesus mean by that?
Is Jesus saying that John the Baptist, although remarkable, isn't worth diddly squat when it comes to kingdom comparisons?
Is Jesus saying that John the Baptist, although important in preparing the way, won't be included in the kingdom?
Is Jesus saying that John the Baptist, although clearly willing and able to acknowledge Jesus' messianic identity, is stuck forever as an almost-made-it Johnny-come-early?
I don't think so. But I do think that Jesus understands his life and ministry as a demarcation in human history and that John the Baptist represents the other side--not the "wrong" side but the "other" side.
In our Rector's Bible Study that meets on Mondays, we're reading The Meaning of Jesus by Marcus Borg and N. T. Wright. This week, we read about Jesus and his ministry. We asked questions like, "Did Jesus understand himself to be the messiah?" and "Did Jesus understand his death as significant in the salvation history of God's people?" My favorite among our questions, though, had to do with the kingdom and the extent to which Jesus brought it in: "Did Jesus realize that the kingdom of God was breaking into human history through his work on earth?" The answer, I believe, is yes.
In the book, Wright has an interesting way of summarizing the first-century Palestinian Jewish political/religious context. He notes that if a people believe in one and only one God and that they are God's chosen people, their suffering must be temporary. Think about it. If there's only one God and you're his chosen people, your predicament cannot be permanent. I like that. That means that people were looking for deliverance...salvation...God's kingdom/reign to be established. The tricky thing, however, is to figure out what sort of kingdom that should be.
Given the account of the gospel, it seems that many of Jesus contemporaries were looking for a kingdom that would manifest itself politically; i.e., through the defeat of the Roman Empire and the establishment of a free Jewish State. (Note how many of today's religious leaders--both Christian and Jewish--still believe that this is true.) Wright and Borg both point out that this was not Jesus' understanding. Instead, his understanding of the kingdom was that it was being established without regard for the overthrow of the Roman occupation. Instead, his healings, teachings, exorcisms, ministry to the downtrodden, etc. all showed that God's kingdom was being established here and now. And that brings us back to John.
Jesus statement isn't a condemnation of John the Baptist; it's a recognition that the kingdom is now. John was the forerunner, the herald, the set-up man. Jesus followed and brought the kingdom. John preached, "The kingdom of heaven is coming," and Jesus proclaimed, "The kingdom of heaven is now here!" John asked, "Are you the one?" and Jesus declared, "What do you see?" There's a great, big line in the sand, and its name is Jesus.
Jesus' statement about John is a confirmation that we're not still waiting for the kingdom. Yes, maybe we're waiting for its fullness, but it's here now. Stop waiting and start participating. Don't get left out. The least in the kingdom are a part of something far greater than was ever anticipated or imagined. The time is now.