Revd Peter Littleford
16th December 2001
When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me." As John's disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces. Then what 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: "'I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.' I tell you the truth: Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
A short time ago I had some time to spare because I was going to observe a student teach a lesson and had arrived far too early to go into the school. . This meant that I had some time to spend in W H Smiths and joined the group of people who were intent on looking at the books rather than buying them – you know the type pretty well, I imagine!
One of the books which I was looking at was Alistair Cooke’s ‘Memories of the Great and the Good’, twenty-four essays on people he had ‘met, known, "covered", admired or liked’ during his long career as a journalist. In his introduction, he claimed that his title was ‘a happy phrase’ for distinguishing those with an outstanding expertise from those with commendable character. He also accepted that a great person is not necessarily a good person, and that the distinction between greatness and goodness was something which needed to be explored further. He went on to say that he wished to avoid terminological discussion and wanted to find and rejoice in what was best about the individuals he had selected.
Well, from what sections I read, it was quite clear that Mr Cook had succeeded admirably in the task which he had set himself, and I am sure that many of his readers were grateful for the quality of his writing and the wisdom of his judgements. But to me, the problem was that he had tantalisingly avoided discussing what were philosophical questions, and that meant that I found myself speculating on what they might be. Thus I found myself wondering on: ‘How do you decide what is best?’ ‘Can you really separate greatness from goodness?’ ‘Is a great person who is not very good really all that great?’ ‘What is it that makes a truly great person great?’
Matthew, as we know from our readings, is no philosopher, but he had things to say, in this passage and elsewhere in his gospel, which shed light on these issues. Indeed, his fundamental claim is that Jesus put into practice what he preached, and thus gave us a foundation for our own value judgements which is especially important just before Christmas. For, if we are going to be able to understand the birth which we will be celebrating in the near future, we need to be able to look forwards as well as backwards: back to be able to grasp the hopes about to be fulfilled; forward to glimpse a new perspective on life, what could be and what is on offer to us.
Such as this has always been believed by Christians. But are such claims credible? Did even John the Baptist have doubts about Jesus? Some commentators have wondered whether the question, which the messengers from John the Baptist put to Jesus –(Are you the one who is to come or should we look for someone else)? – sprang from ‘dawning conviction’ or ‘growing doubt’. Whatever was at the back of their minds, it is clear from Mathew’s Gospel that Jesus’ answer took the form of a summary of the elements of his ministry – healing all manner of disease, raising the dead, and preaching the Good News. Could anyone doubt that in Jesus, God’s promises are fulfilled, that through Jesus, God is savingly at work.
But, of course, after the question about Jesus comes the question about John the Baptist. Who was he? A prophet and more than a prophet we are told – a very great man indeed. But we are also told whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. What can this mean?
Unlike Alistair Cook, where greatness is defined implicitly, the nature of greatness is a recurring topic in Matthew’s gospel. I don’t know about you, but three striking qualities of greatness come to mind: greatness consists in being the servant of all, in exhibiting childlike humility, and in gladly and sincerely obeying God’s law and teaching others to do the same.
These ideas are so familiar to us that they have probably ceased to produce shock or even surprise. But during Jesus’ ministry they must have cause quite a stir. For they were contrary to the accepted assumptions of greatness, the importance of power. They were elements, in fact, in a new and radical perspective on life.
All these were bound up in Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom of God, or as Matthew calls it, the Kingdom of Heaven. For Jesus began from the sovereignty of God, spelled out how it is exercised, and stressed its key importance to each individual. From his teaching and example, therefore, it becomes clear that God values humility rather than arrogance, concern for others rather dominance over them, and respect for what he has revealed of his purposes rather than self-assertion. It also becomes clear that to recognise God as king is to be committed to his standards and methods.
In short, the ministry of Jesus opened up new possibilities, both of understanding and of living, which John did not live long enough to know. But the greatness of those who live in AD (or is it CE?) rather than BC (or BCE) is to be understood, not in terms of personal achievement, but in terms of the service, humility and obedience which God has himself made possible.
Such greatness comes through accepting the values of the Kingdom of God,
but such acceptance is not easy and demands practice, a growing into the
ways of God. And here we can be very thankful because of the teaching and
example of Jesus. But old attitudes die hard, in ourselves and not just in
others. And yet we can be hopeful because, with God’s help, all things – and
that includes coming to share the mind of Christ and to grow into his
likeness – are possible. Not easy – but possible.