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The Least in the Kingdom

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Andrew Marr

It is possible to draw a neat scheme from the Gospel narratives of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus. John is the forerunner who intended only to herald the arrival of one greater than he. John expected to decrease so that another could increase. Then Jesus comes, is baptized by John and replaces John as the leading charismatic teacher of the day….

In Matthew 11:11, Jesus commends John when he says that “among all children born of women, a greater than John the Baptist has never been seen.” And yet when Jesus goes on to says that “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is,” the implication, again, is that John was the end of an era and is not included in the new era that Jesus himself has ushered in. The need for Jesus himself and the Gospel writers to emphasize this relationship at the expense of John so strongly suggests an uneasiness between the followers of these two, and probably between the two men themselves. It has never been easy for two charismatic teachers to share the same space temporally or geographically, let alone both. It is not necessary to attribute downright sinfulness on the part of either in order to suggest that they did not always know what to do with one another….

The passage in Matthew 11 is, of course, of central importance for exploring what is discernable about the relationship between the two. John is in prison and he sends his disciples to ask Jesus whether or not he really was the one whose coming he had announced. The fact that he asks the question in this way suggests that, at the most, John only suspected the possibility that the young man he was baptizing on that fateful day in the Jordan was the coming one. He might have had no idea whatever of who the man was. In any case, if by any chance John had thought he was baptizing his successor at the time he did it, subsequent events have raised severe doubts. Otherwise, John’s questioning of Jesus makes no sense….

When Jesus is questioned by John’s disciples, he gives a reply that is calculated to stress, perhaps even caricature their differences rather than their similarities. By referring to Isaiah’s prophecy of giving sight to the blind and making the lame walk and cleansing lepers, he is citing the very things that John did not do. John threatened his listeners with God’s imminent wrath. Jesus is focused on a healing ministry….

After John’s disciples left, Jesus made some more comments on the Baptist. He speak of the kingdom being subject to violence up through the time of John the Baptist and that although nobody born of woman is greater than John, the least in the kingdom is greater than he. This statement suggests that Jesus sees himself as inaugurating a new era, and even John is on the other side of the divide….

There are no indications that John the Baptist intended to stir up a violent political revolution although Jospehus states that Herod thought he did, or could. However, John was locked in precisely the same relationship with Herod and Herodias as Elijah was with Abab and Jezebel. In both cases, we have a prophet deadlocked with a royal couple in what can only be called a stalemate. That is to say, in each case, the prophet has become a mimetic double of his royal enemy. In such a situation, it does not matter who “wins” because as long as one is trying to “win,” then God and God’s people lose…. Elijah and John the Baptist may be among the greatest of human beings, but they still fall short of the kingdom envisioned by Jesus.

In his concluding words to John’s disciples, Jesus said that whoever did not find him a stumbling block was blessed. The implication is that as long as John the Baptist and his followers think and act in terms of mimetic conflict, John and Herod will be stumbling blocks to each other. More serious, Jesus will appear to be a stumbling block to John the Baptist insofar as Jesus is seen to be a competitor with him. In an important respect, Jesus is a competitor of the Baptist. Jesus clearly has a different agenda than John. It is not possible for one to follow both men wholeheartedly. One has to choose. That is, one of the two men must decrease while the other increases. The challenge for John the Baptist is to give up his own apocalyptic stance and accept the kingdom Jesus is seeking to forge where competition will not be a factor. Only then will Jesus cease to be a stumbling block to his fellow charismatic preacher and social critic.