The strong bond between Jesus and John, beyond their being cousins, was their passionate concern for the poor people of their day and a profound faith in the powerful presence of God. They understood well that they were major players in the worldwide drama that was taking place at that time. John had first to become absolutely certain that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, who would show the way to true and lasting peace. He finally decided that Jesus was that one; he saw God in Jesus more clearly than he had ever seen God in anyone else. It was plain to him that, as Jesus would say about himself, much later on, to know Jesus was to know God.
Several years ago, one of my favorite editorial columnists, African American Bob Herbert, wrote, “We are now in a period in which cynicism is running rampant, and selfishness and greed have virtually smothered all other values. Simple fairness is not a fit topic for political discussion and no one dares even mention the poor…You can say whatever you’d like about the… 60s in general, but there was great energy in the population then, and a willingness to reach beyond one’s self.”
John got all the proof he needed that Jesus was really the Messiah by seeing the works that he was doing that were directly contrary to the uncaring standards of the day. Jesus sent John’s scouts back to him with the message that the throwaway people of their society were the special object of his concern. He loved and respected the handicapped in body and mind – especially who were an embarrassment to those who proudly regarded themselves as normal. He treated the poor with respect and affection because he appreciated their intelligence and eager yearnings for the future. Even those who were as good as dead, whose lives had been stripped of meaning and purpose, were being energized anew, coming to life again as they accepted the teachings and the promises Jesus made to them.
Take all that evidence back to John, Jesus said, and tell him to come to his own conclusion about who I am and what I am trying to accomplish.
And then he praised John, calling him the greatest person who had ever lived.
Why did he say that?
Maybe it was that John was so pure of mind and heart that he could recognize and affirm the truth where others could not or would not.
Or was it that John’s personal integrity was so completely uncompromised that nothing could dissuade him from doing what was right and good?
Was it that he had given himself unconditionally to be God’s agent in the messy world of human life, no matter the dire consequences that he must have foreseen?
Was it all of the above – and more? I think so.
Jesus’ description of John can be discouraging to us. We might think, “If that’s what it takes to be a follower of Jesus, I’m afraid I don’t qualify.” But consider whom else Jesus drew into his enterprise in those starting days. From Peter on down, they look a lot more like us! Jesus makes it clear that he is eager to use whatever each of us can offer for the good of others and our own good. We need not and must not think or feel that we are damaged goods or second rate. He respects and welcomes us exactly as we are. He knows that we carry in our genes the stuff of the ages before us, both beautiful and ugly, and that we are made of stardust as well as embers. He walked among us to bless and heal us all. Like John, we have only to say yes and do, in Jesus’ name, whatever we are capable of doing.