When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
As they went away, 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 wear soft robes 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.”
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. (NRSV).
In a faith-filled gospel such as Matthew’s it can be challenging for the reader to encounter the story we have just read. John the Baptist has been depicted as a prophet and forerunner to the Christ. He is one of this gospel’s heroes. ‘
Yet here is an account that clearly points to John’s experience of doubt.
We readily see doubt as the enemy of faith. The two sit as opposites in our minds. We praise one, and we shun the other.
On top of this, the stories immediately preceding this passage include the healing of the paralytic, the intertwined stories of the hemorrhaging woman and the raised girl, and the healing of two blind men. In each case Jesus points to their faith as the source of their restoration. They are praised for their trust.
But now we are faced with questions posed by none other than the Messiah’s forerunner. From his prison cell John is wondering about the the mission of Jesus.
And this is not merely an issue running through his mind. John is desperate enough to voice his concern, entrusting it to his disciples and sending them to Jesus. His query puts him in a place of public vulnerability. His followers ask before a listening crowd: ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’
Jesus answer is wise, nurturing, compassionate, and understanding. Aware of what John expects from the Messiah, Jesus simply sends his students back armed with their own testimony.
They are to become witnesses to their imprisoned Rabbi. After all, John is not able to ‘see and hear’ . He needs to be told that ‘…the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.’
These prison walls caused even John to need others to tell him of the invasion of heaven.
Jesus instructs the disciples to complete their account with an intriguing sentence: ‘And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ Are John’s doubts really this pervasive? Is there a possibility that this man of humility is, or will be, offended by Jesus’ success? Does John the Baptist feel that he is a failure?
These are possibilities. Possibilities that make John look very human.
Perhaps the inquisitive crowd are tempted to look down on John because of his queery. Do they ignore their advantage of being able to ‘see and hear’? Are they tempted to see themselves and their faith as stronger than this prisoner for God?
All we know is that Jesus found it necessary to address them regarding the role, example, and status of this dessert dweller. Jesus’ final comment focuses on, of all things, ‘greatness’ in the kingdom.
And Jesus goes out of his way to express the stature of John: ‘…among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.’ Even after hearing his expression of doubt Jesus greatly respected John and his mission.
But in doing so, Jesus will not discourage these crowds. John is remarkable. So are they. So much so that there is every possibility of even greater things emerging from among them. These unnamed individuals have seen and heard of the wonder of heaven.
Such encounters hold all the potential to produce great things.