When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces. 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.”
‘I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.’ (And all the people who heard this, including the tax-collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism. But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.)
Today’s reading comes immediately after Jesus’ response to John the Baptist’s question: Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another? Having responded to John by revealing their mutual and complementary fulfilling of the prophecy of Isaiah, Jesus now turns to speak to those gathered around him. Having, in their hearing, asserted his role as the one for whom John was preparing the way, Jesus is keen to ensure that everyone understands the importance of John’s place in God plan for humanity.
I am sure we all know phrases like: I want to speak to the organ grinder not the monkey. Phrases that express our wish to speak to the person in charge, the one who can make the necessary decisions, rather than the underling who is powerless to make a difference. Perhaps we have used such phrases ourselves, whether in annoyance or disappointment. It was just those emotional responses of annoyance and disappointment that Jesus is heading-off today.
Before the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, John the Baptist had made a big impact. Emerging from the desolate Judean wilderness, John had preached an uncompromising message of repentance. John had been open in professing his role as the herald of one far greater than himself. In his humility, John had even explained that his baptism in the waters of the River Jordan would be overshadowed by the baptism of the one who would reveal God’s Holy Spirit in our midst. Then, in the words of yesterday’s reading, the crowds heard Jesus saying to John: ‘Step aside! I am here! Your job is done!’
Amongst those who had received John’s baptism had been many for whom it had been a sign of hope that all was not lost. In saying, ‘Yes,’ to John’s question there was a danger that those who had felt saved might suddenly feel very let down, or even cheated. Perhaps John had just been ‘the monkey’! Perhaps they would have to start all over again with this new man! Perhaps there was no point, no hope, after all! Perhaps Jesus, like John, was just another convincing charlatan! But … perhaps not … After all, they had seen it for themselves: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.
Today we are told in unequivocal terms of the importance and the standing of John the Baptist in the eyes of God. Today we are being left in no doubt how vital John’s message is in the unfolding story of Christ’s Incarnation and journey towards crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. Today Jesus is pointing the finger at each of us and making it absolutely clear … the only way to prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas is to follow John’s teaching: repent! We must turn from our old ways and follow him who brings God’s salvation into this world.