They say that even the most confident, bold and courageous people have soft hearts. Those of us who may instinctively flinch at John the Baptist’s energetic – even vitriolic – outburst against the Pharisees, and loyal deference to Jesus Christ in his speech from last week’s Gospel (Matthew 3:1-12); those of us who would question his insensitive, uncaring, and offensive style – we might pause today in light of this Gospel story about John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-11).
For what we see here is a more nuanced, man of faith no longer ranting out of a dogmatic cut-and-dry confidence. But a soft, vulnerable heart. He is much more than an in-your-face, sock-it-to-them extremist and extrovert. Here we get a peek at his vulnerability and the depth of his soul. Maybe it’s because he knew he was close to his death.
At Nelson Mandela’s memorial service in South Africa last week, U.S. President Obama said that Mandela’s strength was “sharing with us [that is, the world] his doubts and fears.”
In prison, John the Baptist expresses his doubts as to whether the man he had rooted for all these years was truly the Messiah. Was his entire life calling to herald the coming Christ all for naught? Like the doubting Thomas would later, John the Baptist seriously questioned whether this Jesus who ate and hung out with sinners, Romans, and tax collectors was the man whom they all expected would save them from those very sinners. John the Baptist’s insecurity is telling, especially when placed in contrast with the early depiction of him crying out brashly in the wilderness.
How does Jesus respond to John’s expressions of doubt? With not only encouragement and affirmation. But Jesus also lifts John’s ministry up. Jesus doesn’t scold John for doubting. Jesus calls him “the greatest” person alive.
I hope John heard that good news. It is a path of hardship John the Baptist undertook, without question. It was a hard path of rejection, ridicule and suffering John endured being a prophet and preparing the way of the Lord. And yet, it is also a path tempered with grace. Because the grace of God came to John in prison; when he really couldn’t do anything to change his unfortunate circumstances – that’s when he received a word of blessing from the One for whom he had prepared the way.