Today's Gospel (Matthew 11:2-11) presents some tough questions. We'll take a look at a couple of them in this reflection. I certainly don't pretend to have any definitive answers, but I can offer a few suggestions.
First, the questions:
1. Why does John the Baptist send his disciples to Jesus to ask “Are you the One Who is to come, or should we look for another?” Doesn't John already know Who Jesus is?
2. What does Jesus mean when He says, “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”?
We'll start with question #1. What's happening here? Is John having a crisis in faith? After all, he knows better than just about anyone else Who Jesus is. After all, he jumped for joy in his mother's womb as Jesus approached. He baptized Jesus and witnessed the dove coming down from Heaven and the voice declaring, “This is My Beloved Son.” John himself called Jesus the “Lamb of God” and pointed to Him as the One Who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. So why is John asking now?
Some argue that perhaps John might be a little shaky at the moment. After all, he's in prison. His life is in danger. Perhaps he is merely giving in to an all-too-human instant of doubt.
Personally, I think John has another motive. His disciples don't seem to have completely warmed up to Jesus at this point. After all, John's style is very different than Jesus'. John teaches fasting, for instance, while Jesus proclaims that the wedding guests do not fast while the Bridegroom is with them.
John knows very well that he needs to decrease while Jesus increases. Therefore, he sends his disciples to Jesus to hear directly from Him, to listen to His witness in person, to see Him and observe His actions. John wants his disciples to know Jesus like he knows Jesus and to recognize Him as the One Who is to come, and he realizes that the best way for this to happen is for the disciples to encounter Jesus directly.
Jesus invites the disciples to think about what they see and hear: “the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” The ancient prophecies are being fulfilled. Go and tell John that, Jesus commands the disciples, for He understands that the message will be further solidified in the disciples' minds as they spread it.
Jesus ends with a statement that seems to suggest that the real message here isn't for John the Baptist at all: “And blessed is the one who takes no offense at Me.” John certainly isn't taking offense at Jesus, but perhaps John's disciples are. Jesus, Who can read people's hearts, knows this and guides John's disciples straight toward the path that John wants them to travel.
Later in His conversation with the crowd, Jesus says something that is rather confusing. Listen again: “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.” This seems paradoxical. How can John be the greatest of those born of women and yet less than the least in the Kingdom of Heaven?
John is certainly great. Saints and theologians teach that he was sanctified in his mother's womb. As an adult he assumed the role of an Old Testament prophet, with his ascetic lifestyle and his powerful message. Certainly, John is the greatest of those prophets, for he points to Someone he knows personally. He sees and touches what those who have gone before have only dreamed about and have longed for from a distance.
But John does not live long enough to experience the full reality of Jesus' coming. He does not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, at least in his earthly life. He is never baptized so as to have God's presence dwelling in the innermost parts of his soul. He never receives Jesus in the Eucharist and holds God, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, in his body. He never reads the sacred words of the Gospels. He never even witnesses Jesus' passion, death, and Resurrection.
Even the least member of the Kingdom of God, present already but not yet fully fulfilled in the Catholic Church, has an advantage over John the Baptist. Christians have a dignity and a blessing that even the greatest of the Old Testament prophets could not grasp.