The Least is the Most

I can’t say that John the Baptist was exactly the most welcoming of preachers. He was your “fire-and-brimstone” kind of guy.

Imagine him standing by the shores of the Jordan, fiery, penetrating glance scanning the crowd that gathered. Many were curious. Who wouldn’t be? This crazy-looking self-proclaimed prophet appears from the desert regions dressed in camel hair. Weird enough, but then they find out about his diet…well, that would have sent a few people running!

Apparently there were enough among the people who came to hear him that responded to his message to attract the notice of the authorities, both political and religious. The message? “…a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” writes Luke in his Gospel (3:3). There were tax collectors and pious Jews, soldiers and the common folk, who came to hear what he had to say—and John had plenty to share! When asked, he informed each segment of his immediate society exactly what was required of them (Luke 3:10-14).

But he was not polite about it. Political correctness was definitely not John’s “gift.”

You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath. Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (3:7-9).

Some though he might be the Messiah they were looking for, but John quickly disabused them of that thought and, with great humility, proclaimed: “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful that I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (3:16). This referred to what would happen in the upper room after the resurrection and ascension, and just prior to Pentecost.

John, typical of his personality as a preacher, didn’t stop there: “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (3:17). 

Even kings didn’t escape John’s scathing condemnation. He caught Herod’s attention when he rebuked the tetrarch for marrying his brother’s wife (Herod had divorced his first wife because he liked his half-brother’s wife better!). For that bit of political incorrectness John ended up in jail.

Jesus had nothing but good to say about his cousin, John. “I tell you,” He is quoted by Luke as saying, “among those born of women there is no one greater than John” (7:28a).

At the same time, it isn’t public hoopla that got the biggest kudos from the Lord. The end of the statement about John goes like this: “…yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (7:28b). Who are these “least” in the kingdom?

A little later in Luke’s Gospel, we find the disciples arguing over who would be the greatest in the kingdom (the nuances in Jesus’s messages sometimes went over their heads!). “Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is the least among you—he is the greatest’” (9:47, 48).

We are great groupies, hanging our “stars” to the coattails of those who we think can grant us the greatest advantages, the greatest profile, the greatest opportunities for being noticed. I remember wanting desperately to be part of the “in” group in public school—the “cool” girls. I remember complaining about the “least” of my companions in seminary wanting to be my friend, and I really didn’t want to be hers! Selfish, stupid, and totally out-of-step with the commands, and example, of the Lord. Jesus says, “embrace the least” because they are the greatest.

Jesus modeled that. He didn’t ignore synagogue rulers, Centurions, and religious leaders altogether, but He embraced tax collectors, children, lepers, the sick, and the poor as a routine part of his ministry.

Many would have dismissed John as a weirdo, just as they would have dismissed all the other “leasts” that surrounded them. But Jesus valued what many others didn’t—in fact, He saw value in everyone. As should we.

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