Mat 11:2 Now when John had heard in the prison the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples,
When John had heard in the prison, Vulg. in chains. When He had heard from his disciples, as Luke says (Luk_9:18), from whence it is equally plain that there is here a hysterlogia, and that what S. Matthew here relates concerning John, from the 2nd to the 20th verse, happened before the Mission of the Apostles, to which he himself referred.
In chains, Syr. in the house of those who are bound, that is when Herod had shut him up because he reproved his adultery with Herodias.
John then, a little before his martyrdom, sent these disciples to Christ in the thirty-second year of Christ’s age, which was the second year of His preaching, when He was becoming famous by His doctrine and miracles, that they might learn from Himself that He was the very Messiah, or Christ, that when John was dead they might go to Him. For otherwise they might have made a schism from Christ, and preferred John as their master to Christ. For that they thought more highly of John than of Christ is plain from Mat_9:14. As therefore the runners in the Stadium hand on the lamp to the runner who succeeds them in the course, so did John-when he had fulfilled his office and ministry, resign it to Christ. And, as the dayspring dies away into the rising sun, so did John pale before Christ. For John was the morning star of the sun of righteousness. Wherefore, not only did he not envy Christ His rising glory when his own was setting, but rejoiced at it. Yea, he desired to set, that Christ might arise, for he was ambitious not of his own glory, but of God’s and Christ’s glory. Wherefore he said, “It behoveth Him to increase, but me to decrease.”
Mat 11:3 And said unto him, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?
And saith, &c. He that should come, Gr.ό ε̉ρχόμενος, the coming one, namely, that great Prophet, the Redeemer of Israel, the Saviour of the World, the Messias promised by all the Prophets, and most ardently longed for by the Fathers, who at this time, now that the prophecies concerning Hirn are fulfilled, is by all looked for as coming. He alludes to the prophecy of the Patriarch Jacob, “The sceptre shall not be taken away from Judah,” &c. Gen_49:10.
From these words of John, Tertullian (De Baptism, c. 10) and Justin (Quest. 38 ad Orthodox) think that John doubted concerning Jesus whether He were the Christ or not, but falsely, for John had already seen the Spirit descending upon Him in the form of a dove, and had heard the Father’s voice saying, This is my beloved Son. And John had already given the clearest testimony to Him, when he said, Behold the Lamb of God.
Others think that John did not doubt whether Jesus were the Christ, but only asked whether, after death, He would come into Limbus, and visit and deliver the Fathers who were detained there. So S. Jerome, “He did not say, Art Thou He who hast come, but art Thou He who wilt come? And the meaning is, Tell me, since I am about to descend into Hades, whether also I shall announce Thee to the shades below, as I have announced Thee in the upper world? Or, is it not fitting that the Son of God should taste of death, and wilt Thou send another for these mysteries?” So, too, S. Gregory. But this opinion is little apposite or probable.
I say, therefore, that John sends his disciples, and asks Jesus whether He be the Coming One, i.e., the Messias, not as doubting about Him, but because, being near death, he wished his hesitating disciples to be instructed concerning Him, that they might be led to Christ. So SS. Hil., Chrys., Cyril. Observe, too, the prudence of S. John. He in his own name asks Jesus if He be the Christ, because his disciples would not, of themselves, have dared to propose such a question. For he is the best physician who, to cure a sick man, acts as though he were sick himself, and takes nauseous medicine. So S. Paul says, “Who is weak, and I am not weak?”
Mat 11:4 Jesus answered and said unto them, Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see:
And Jesus answering, &c. These miracles which ye have seen Me perform are the marks of the true Messiah, given by Isa_35:5, and Isa_61:1. This is why S. Luke adds, In the selfsame hour He healed many of their diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and to many that were blind He gave sight. For neither Elijah, nor Elisha, nor any other prophet did so many and such great miracles as Christ. Wherefore S. Cyril (lib. 2 Thesaur. c. 4) says, “Christ, both by the greatness and the multitude of His miracles, shewed Himself to be the Messiah.” You may add, by His beneficence. For although Moses shewed many miracles in the ten plagues of Egypt, yet did he not heal the Egyptians, but afflicted and slew them. But “Christ went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil.” Wherefore His hands are said to be “versatile” (Son_5:14, Vulg.), that is, active in doing good to all; and “full of hyacinths” (Vulg.), i.e., of heavenly works, miracles and kindnesses.
Mat 11:5 The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.
The blind see, &c. He alludes to Isa_34:4. “Our God Himself shall come and save us.” (Vulg.): “then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, &c.” Also to Is. lxi. 1.
The poor have the Gospel preached, &c. Theophylact and Euthym. take the verb ευ̉αχχελίξονται, actively, meaning, the poor Apostles preach the Gospel. But the verb is passive, and so the Syriac translates it. The meaning is, “I evangelize the poor, I preach the Gospel to them, and they receive it eagerly, though the rich reject it.” He alludes to, indeed he quotes, Is. lxi. 1, “He hath sent me to announce to the meek,” where the LXX., instead of anavim, the meek, read aniim, the poor: and trans., he hath sent me to evangelize the poor, not the poor by necessity, but those who are poor in spirit, and consequently, meek and gentle. More simply, by the poor, you may understand such as the Apostles and the multitudes. For Christ preached to them that He might shew that the souls of the poor are equally precious before God with those of the rich; and therefore God made both equal in the Gospel. Dost thou then wish to imitate Christ? Teach the poor, guide, solace, help them.
Mat 11:6 And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.
And blessed is he, &c, i.e., who shall not be offended at my lowly conversation. The Syriac is, Blessed is he who shall not stumble at Me. For as S. Greg. says (Hom. vi.), “I do indeed marvellous things, but I do not disdain to suffer shameful things.” There is a tacit reference to the disciples of John, who were offended at His lowliness; and He intimates that he beheld the secrets of their hearts. So S. Jerome says, “He aims not at John, but at his disciples.” And S. Hilary says, “Because the cross was about to be a stumbling block to many, Christ pronounced them blessed to whom His cross, His death, His burial, would bring no trial of their faith.”
Mat 11:7 And as they departed, Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?
And as they were going away. (Gr. and Vulg.) That the multitude might not think that Christ was flattering John, and aiming at His favour, as S. Chrys. says, if He had praised him in the presence of his disciples: therefore He permitted them to depart, and then He praised him.
Jesus began to say, &c. Shaken, Gr. σαλευόμενον, waving and fluctuating, like a wave of the sea. By a similar metaphor we speak of the corn waving, when impelled to and fro by the wind. Christ would remove any suspicion which might arise among the people from this message of John, that he had changed his opinion concerning Christ—that whereas he had formerly thought him to be the Messiah, he had now changed his opinion, and had sent his disciples to interrogate Him, because he was in doubt about him. So Jesus, as it were said, “Suppose not, 0 ye Jews, that John thinks any other of Me than he thought before. For John is not a reed to be shaken backwards and forwards by the wind, that he should lightly assert a thing, and afterwards retract it on account of what men say. John is like an oak, which stands unmoved in faith and stedfastness against every blast, whether of those who praise or those who blame. What he before testified of Me, when he was at liberty, he testifies with equal fortitude now that he has been shut up by Herod in prison: and he has sent his disciples to Me that they themselves may see by My miracles that his testimony concerning Me was true.”
Tropologically, a reed, is a light man, inconstant, tossed to and fro: at one time impelled by the words of flatterers, he asserts something: again being driven by detractors, he denies it, as a reed is blown in different directions by different winds. 2. A reed is one who is devoid of truth, virtue, and consistency, as a reed has no strength, or stamina. 3. A reed is he who has no fruit of good works to show, since a reed bears no fruit. 4. It is he who is delighted with, and feeds upon, the fluctuating pleasures of the world. For a reed is dry: yet it grows beside the waters. Whence it is called, “the river weed.” On this S. Austin writes piously and elegantly on the words of Ps. cxxxvii. 1. “Above the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept, when we remembered Sion.” (Vulg.) “The rivers of Babylon,” he says, “are all things which here are loved, and pass away. Sit above the rivers; sit not in the stream, nor under the stream. Behold in Babylon there are fair things to detain thee: let them not detain thee, let them not deceive thee.”
Hear S. Greg. (Hom. vi. in Evang.) “What else but the carnal mind is signified by the reed? But such was not John, for favour could not flatter him, nor could the anger of any detraction make him harsh.”
Hear also S. Ambrose (lib. 5 in c. 7 Lk 5:24): “The Lord denies that we must go forth into the desert—that is, into the world—lest we should think those are to be imitated by us who are of a carnal mind, whom, being obnoxious to the storms of this world, an unsettled life disquiets; who are rightly compared to a reed, in whom is no solid fruit of justice, men with their long hair, with forensic trappings, implicated in knotty points, sonorous with empty mouthings, with no benefit to themselves, but often with harm, follow after things inwardly worthless, outwardly specious. We are reeds when we are not rooted with any natural strength. If any light gale of prosperity blow upon us, we beat our neighbours with idle motion: we are useless to help, facile to injure. Reeds love rivers, as the fading and transitory things of the world delight us. If, however, anyone shall pluck up this reed from the earth, and strip off its useless parts—spoiling the old man with his deeds—and guide it by the hand of a scribe writing quickly, it begins to be no more a reed, but a pen, which impresses the precepts of the heavenly Scriptures on the hidden places of the mind, and writes them on the tables of the heart.”
Afterwards S. Ambrose adds, that Christ is the good reed of whom Isaiah prophesied (c. xlii.)—”A shaken reed he will not break,” (Vulg.)—because the flesh which sins had shaken He made firm by the power of the Resurrection. The good reed is the Flesh of Christ, which nailed the serpent’s head, and the enticements of worldly cupidity, to the gibbet of the Cross.
Mat 11:8 But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.
But what went ye out, &c. But John is not soft and delicate. He is not clothed in palatial garments, but in sackcloth of camels’ hair. For pleasures are the mistresses of flattery and lies, but hardness is the teacher of truth and sanctity.
Mat 11:9 But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet.
But what went ye out for to see? More than a prophet. Syriac, one more excellent than a prophet. You may object that John himself denied that he was a prophet (Joh_1:21). I reply, He said that out of humility, but in a true sense. For a prophet is, strictly speaking, one who foretells future events. But John did not foretell of Christ as about to come, but pointed to Him as present. He was therefore, rather the finger-post, as it were, than the prophet of Christ, and therefore Christ said that he was more than a prophet. In the next place, he, through the Divine Spirit, illustrated Christ, and knew the economy of Christ in the Flesh more clearly, fully, and perfectly than any of the prophets. 3. John was the angel, that is, the ambassador and precursor of Christ Himself, and immediately sent by Him, and that in His presence and before His face, according to the words of Malachi: “Behold I send My angel before Thy face, who shall prepare Thy way before Thee.” (Vulg.) 4. He himself was altogether greater than all the prophets, as Christ asserts.
Mat 11:10 For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
For this is he of whom, &c. Christ cites the words of Malachi iii. 1. See what I have there said. I have there collected the reasons and analogies why John is called an angel. And many indeed thought that he was not really a man, but an angel, as Eusebius shews (lib. 1, De monst. c. 5). hence Auctor Imperfecti on this place says, “Marvellous was he who surpassed in human nature the sanctity of angels, and by the grace of God obtained what by nature he had not.”
Mat 11:11 Verily I say unto you, Among them that are born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
Verily I say unto you, &c. Luke adds the word prophet (Luk_7:27): There hath not arisen a greater prophet. Whence Toletus from SS. Ambrose and Hilary observes that Jesus does not use the word greater of John absolutely, but as restricted by the word prophet. For the Apostles were greater, or certainly in every, way the equals of John. But, on the contrary, I should say that by the expression Prophet, Christ leaves it to be understood that there had been no person who was greater than John, for the prophets were accounted in the olden time, and really were, the most holy of men. So that as none of the prophets were greater than John, it may be gathered that there was no one else who was greater.
Christ therefore tacitly here calls John the greatest of all men, for otherwise He would not conclude from thence that he was more than a prophet, which He proceeds to prove. This must be understood of the worthies of the Old Testament—that is to say, of all time prior to Christ. John, therefore, is not here compared with Christ Himself, or the Blessed Virgin, or the Apostles, who followed Christ and who (by reason of their Apostolic dignity) were not less than John, but rather indeed greater than he. You may say that Moses was greater than John, because it was said of him (Deu_34:11), “And there arose not a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses.” I reply, that it goes on, “Whom the Lord knew face to face, in all the signs and the wonders which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt.” Which means, that there was no prophet like unto Moses in his familiar converse with God, and the power by which he smote Egypt with plagues. But in other things John was equal with, yea greater than, Moses and the rest of the prophets.
Besides other distinguishing characteristics and prerogatives of John, his spirit, prophetic office, life, and actions were more sublime than those of the other prophets, as S. Jerome asserts, and S. Austin (lib. 2, contr. advers. leg. et proph. c. 5). For John was, as it were, a standing miracle in his conception, in the womb, in his birth, in his angelic life. He was conceived, by a miracle, of barren parents; by a miracle he recognized Christ in the womb; and saluted and adored him; by a miracle, when he was born he communicated universal gladness; by a miracle, at his circumcision he restored the use of speech to his dumb father; by a miracle, he went when a boy into the desert, and there lived like an angel all his life. Whence the Church sings of John—
O boundlessly happy, of merit most lofty,
Of purity snow-white, pollution thou hatest:
O martyr most valiant, of deserts the lover,
Of seers the greatest.
And so John has the crowns of virginity, prophecy, and martyrdom, in addition to the crown of a doctor.
But he that is least, &c. 1. The least of the blessed in heaven is greater, that is, more blessed and more perfect, more excellent and glorious than John, who was still a mortal traveller. Christ adds these words that He may stir up His hearers to follow after the blessedness of His salvation by means of the evangelic law which He himself brought in. For this is the Kingdom of Heaven from which Christ began and continued His preaching.
2. With greater propriety and force, you may say with S. Chrysostom and others, that Christ here opposes, and in one sense places Himself lower than John, but in other respects prefers Himself to John. He says, “I have declared that among those born of women there is not a greater in the Old Testament than John; but lest ye should think that he is the greatest of all, and the Messias, I add, that Christ, who is younger than John, is, nevertheless, greater than he.” It is as though Christ said, “I, Christ, who in age, and in the opinion of the common people, am less than John in preaching, in the kingdom of Heaven am greater than he, because I so preach that I at the same time inspire grace, by which believers in Me may indeed attain this kingdom.” Whence it seems that a comma should be placed after the word least, not after kingdom of heaven. In the Gr. Christ is here called ό μικρότερος, i.e., less than, junior to John. The Heb. would be. kaccaton, or the litlte one, that is to say, the least, the lowliest, as Christ was when He said, “As for me, I am a worm and no man, the very scorn of men, and the outcast of the people.” The comparative is often put for the superlative.
3. Our Maldonatus explains thus: The less, that is, the least Christian in the kingdom of Heaven, or the Church, which preaches and leads to the kingdom of Heaven is greater, that is, of higher dignity than John. Greater, I say, by reason of the status of the Church; and he is able to be greater from the nature of the Gospel, than John was. For the new law of Christ is the law of grace, which we are always able to increase. Whence John the Baptist and all the old fathers received their grace from Christ and the new law.
Symbolically, S. Cæsarius says (dialog. 3), “The least, or the youngest of the Apostles was John the Evangelist, who is greater than John the Baptist, because the Apostle leant upon the bosom of Christ.”