As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings' houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written,
“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way before you.’
Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
(Matthew 11:7-15 ESV)
Jesus has moments where he speaks in such an elliptical way that it is difficult to tell what exactly he wants us to focus on. Jesus’ way of questioning his audience to get them thinking is very much parallel to his use of parables.
Jesus doesn’t give any convenient answer to the crowd that had gathered around him. The disciples of John the Baptist had just asked Jesus directly if he was the Christ. He gave them no convenient answer, but pointed to the things he had been doing: restoring sight to the blind, giving strength to weak legs, healing diseases of the skin, opening long-deaf ears.
The one we in the 21st century find hard to swallow is the restoration of life to the dead. But there is evidence that he did this. We should actually have a harder time with the idea that a person who had no money to speak of was offering hope to the poor than that someone might restore life to the dead. Our modern doctors can do almost that. Our modern economists can’t.
The riddle Jesus presents the crowd with is a question of motive. What did you go out to see? We could ask the same of the news media reporting on the Occupy Wall St. movement today. They seem baffled by the lack of a specific demand or a cohesive message. The reporters of Jesus’ day were baffled by John the Baptist. His whole message was repentance and humility. He renounced material possessions and wore a hair shirt. He was a vegetarian. He really did nothing. And yet he spoke truth to a corrupt regime. A case could be made to say that movements like Gandhi in India in the 1930s and now the Occupy Wall St. crowd follow in his footsteps. Simplicity and non-violence make the greatest statements.
Jesus was right. John the Baptist was more like a reed shaken by the wind – simple… humble… no message but peace – than he was like a politician wearing fine clothes and advising kings. For years the Christian Church in America believed that having the ear of Presidents and Congressmen was how you brought about societal change. It turns out that the bruised reeds of the world have the greater effect (see Isaiah 42:1-4 on this).
Jesus also wants us to know that the kingdom of heaven isn’t off in the future. It is right here. It is now. It is every now since his coming and until his coming. As long as Jesus – the king – is here, the kingdom is here.
Part of the riddle he presents us with is this: John the Baptist, he says, was the greatest person to arise to that point “born of a woman” (read: human being). But the person who is least in the kingdom is “greater” than he. For one thing, in the kingdom of heaven, the model is upside down from the kingdoms of this world. So, in the kingdom of heaven, the king is the servant of all. He exercises no military might, issues no edicts, demands no tribute. And what Jesus is saying is that if you want to be “great” in the kingdom of heaven, that’s the kind of life you’ll want to be leading: doing acts of service and mercy, healing the sick, offering hope to the poor, serving even those who would oppose you.