– 2nd week of Advent –
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. [Matthew 11:11]
If John the Baptist is so great, why is he the least? This conundrum lies at the heart of this passage of Scripture. It has something to do with the fact that he stands at the end of the old order, whereas Jesus has come to initiate the new.
The ‘old order’, presented to us in the Hebrew Scriptures, is about the forging of a people as it comes to terms with the gradual realisation that there is only the one God, calling them into a relationship with him. The God of love and mercy is at work, but at times obscured by the displacement and foment experienced as a nation is formed. Bringing a people together takes strength, discipline and law. Leaders arise, specially chosen by God and gifted with his Spirit, who are strong and able to forge this unruly band of nomads into God’s people. John the Baptist stands as the last and the greatest of these leaders.
But the old is the foundation of, and preparation for, the new. No more does God use only specially chosen leaders. Each of us is a son or a daughter of God. We are all called to exercise the ministries of priest, prophet and king established in the Old Testament, in the particular way that is unique to each of us and to who we are called to be before God.
If each of us is called to be ‘priest, prophet and king’, each of us is also called to be ‘father’ or ‘mother’ in faith to others. We are to nurture God’s life in others, each according to their need, circumstances and capacities. It is a point that Pope Francis contemplates towards the beginning of his new encyclical on fraternal unity (Fratelli Tutti n. 4). Quoting the first letter of John (4:16) and using St Francis of Assisi as his example, the Pope writes: “(he) did not wage a war of words aimed at imposing doctrines; he simply spread the love of God… He understood that “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God”… only the (person) who approaches others, not to draw them into his (or her) own life, but to help them become ever more fully themselves, can truly be called a father (or mother)”
The Baptist is a prophet, and that is an extraordinary thing. You are a father or mother in faith to all who come your way, and that is everything.
By Shane Dwyer