For I say to you: Amongst those that are born of women, there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist. But he that is the lesser in the kingdom of God, is greater than he (Luke 7:28).
Amen I say to you, there hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist: yet he that is the lesser in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he (Matthew 11:11).
The passages, although a little different, refer to the same incident and the meaning is basically the same, that passage from Luke providing a key word, namely “prophet.” Some more modern commentators make note of that word in stressing that Saint Joseph was greater than John the Baptist. Saint Joseph, they note, was not a prophet.
My concern, however, is with the verse, he that is the lesser in the kingdom of God, is greater than he.
I need help here. I do not understand it. Therefore, I go to my trusty exegete, Cornelius a Lapide.
The answer he provides, from the Fathers, is much simpler than I thought. I do not even need to quote any Father directly.
A Lapide says that the key is in the words “kingdom of heaven” or “kingdom of God.” John the Baptist was still a wayfarer when Jesus said these prophetic words. John would be “greater” in glory, a Lapide explains, than he was as a mortal pilgrim. Not that the Baptist would be a “lesser” in the kingdom of heaven; but he would be a “greater,” greater than what he himself was on earth. So, too, even the least of the blessed in heaven, will be (after Christ’s ascension) greater than Saint John was prior to the Savior’s ascension. Prior, that is, not after.
Our Lord was giving a lesson on the unimaginable joy of beatitude that would come from His grace. Indeed, as Saint Paul says in quoting Isaias: “That eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him (1 Cor. 2:9). Those who consider themselves “the least” in this life will be exalted in the next.
See the humility of John: “I am not worthy to loose the strap of his sandals.” Again, “He must increase and I must decrease.” Even the seasons express it: For the days get shorter after the birthday of John the Baptist (June 24) and the days get longer after Christmas. And in death too. John was beheaded, his severed head dropped to the earth of the prison floor; Christ was lifted up on the Cross drawing all things to Himself.
Let us, therefore, obey Our Lord and strive to become like little children. Placing a child before His apostles, Jesus said: “For he that is the lesser among you all, he is the greater” (Luke 9:48).