from Living Spaces
Jesus today has high words of praise for John the Baptist. John had a unique role which sets him apart from all others: he was the one to announce the long-awaited arrival of the Messiah. John is the last in the line of the great Old Testaments prophets, men who spoke in God’s name pointing the way for God’s People, at times denouncing their behaviour and at others pointing to a great destiny ahead. John is an Old Testament figure but he forms a kind of bridge between the Old and the New. He died – in fact, was executed – before the mission of Jesus was completed. The New Testament or Covenant was sealed with Jesus’ blood on the cross. John never saw that; he never was fully a disciple of Jesus.
And so, Jesus says, even the very least in the Kingdom of God, inaugurated by Jesus, is in a more privileged position than John. John was not able to share in the abundance of life that was released through the death and resurrection of Jesus as every believing Christian can do.
There are at this point some strange words: "From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force." The meaning is not immediately clear but it seems to refer to those who are using violence to prevent people from entering the Kingdom and pulling away those who have already entered. In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, this could apply to those Jews and others who were bitterly opposed to Jesus and his message and who both tried to prevent people entering the Christian community or tried to make those already members to defect. This we know from the letters of Paul was happening in many communities. And it is still happening today, sometimes with violence (e.g. persecution) sometimes in much more subtle ways (it is not ‘PC’ to be Christian).
John, too, is described as "Elijah who is to come". We know that the prophet Elijah did not die a natural death. He was carried off to heaven in a chariot. However, it was a Jewish belief that some day he would return to leave this earth in a normal way and join the dead in Sheol. But the important point was that his return would be the immediate prelude to the arrival of the Messiah. In calling John Elijah, Jesus is clearly pointing to himself as the Messiah. And so Jesus says: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."
Those with real insight will know what Jesus is saying. They will listen carefully to his words and recognise Jesus for who he really is and accept him as Lord.
We might conclude by reflecting that the role of John the Baptist is one that each follower of Christ is called to fill. It is up to us to prepare the way for Christ and his vision of the Kingdom to enter the lives of people. In the words of the Benedictus, a hymn said every day in the Church’s Morning Prayer:
As for you, little child,
You shall be called a prophet of God the Most High.
You shall go ahead of the Lord
To prepare his ways before him. (Luke 2:76)