“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? But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment; behold, they that wear soft clothing are makings’ houses. But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet.”
For the matter indeed of John’s disciples had been ordered well, and they were gone away assured by the miracles which had just been performed; but there was need after that of remedy as regarded the people. For although they could not suspect anything of the kind of their own master, the common people might from the inquiry of John’s disciples form many strange suspicions, not knowing the mind with which he sent his disciples. And it was natural for them to reason with themselves, and say, “He that bore such abundant witness, hath he now changed his persuasion, and doth he doubt whether this or another be He that should come? Can it be, that in dissension with Jesus he saith this? that the prison hath made him more timid? that his former words were spoken vainly, and at random?” It being then natural for them to suspect many such things, see how He corrects their weakness, and removes these their suspicions. For “as they departed, He began to say to the multitudes.” Why, “as they departed?” That He might not seem to be flattering the man.
And in correcting the people, He doth not publish their suspicion, but adds only the solution of the thoughts that were mentally disturbing them: signifying that He knew the secrets of all men. For He saith not, as unto the Jews, “Wherefore think ye evil?” Because if they had it in their minds, not of wickedness did they so reason, but of ignorance on the points that had been spoken of. Wherefore neither doth He discourse unto them in the way of rebuke, but merely sets right their understanding, and defends John, and signifies that he is not fallen away from his former opinion, neither is he changed, not being at all a man easily swayed and fickle, but steadfast and sure, and far from being such as to betray the things committed unto him.
And in establishing this, He employs not at first his own sentence, but their former testimony, pointing out how they bare record of his firmness, not by their words only, but also by their deeds.
Wherefore He saith, “What went ye out into the wilderness to see?” as though He had said, Wherefore did ye leave your cities, and your houses, and come together all of you into the wilderness? To see a pitiful and flexible kind of person? Nay, this were out of all reason, this is not what is indicated by that earnestness, and the concourse of all men unto the wilderness. So much people and so many cities would not have poured themselves out with so great zeal towards the wilderness and the river Jordan at that time, had ye not expected to see some great and marvellous one, one firmer than any rock. Yea, it was not “a reed” surely, that “ye went out to see shaken by the wind:” for the flexible and such as are lightly brought round, and now say one thing, now another, and stand firm in nothing, are most like that. And see how He omits all wickedness, and mentions this, which then especially haunted3 them; and removes the suspicion of lightness.
“But what went ye out for to see? a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold, they that wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.”
Now His meaning is like this: He was not of himself a waverer; and this ye yourselves showed by your earnestness. Much less could any one say this, that he was indeed firm, but having made himself a slave to luxury, he afterwards became languid. For among men, some are such as they are of themselves, others become so; for instance, one man is passionate by nature, and another from having fallen into a long illness gets this infirmity. Again, some men are flexible and fickle by nature, while others become so by being slaves to luxury, and by living effeminately. “But John,” saith He, “neither was such a character by nature, for neither was it a reed that ye went out to see; nor by giving himself to luxury did he lose the advantage he possessed.” For that he did not make himself a slave to luxury, his garb shows, and the wilderness, and the prison. Since, had he been minded to wear soft raiment, he would not have lived in the wilderness, nor in the prison, but in the king’s courts: it being in his power, merely by keeping silence, to have enjoyed honor without limit. For since Herod so reverenced him, even when he had rebuked him, and was in chains, much more would he have courted him, had he held his peace. You see, he had indeed given proof of his firmness and fortitude; and how could he justly incur suspicions of that kind?
2. When therefore as well by the place, as by his garments, and by their concourse unto Him, He had delineated his character, He proceeds to bring in the prophet. For having said, “Why went ye out? To see a prophet? Yea I say unto you, and more than a prophet;” He goes on, “For this is he of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before Thy face, which shall prepare Thy way before Thee.” Having before set down the testimony of the Jews, He then applies that of the prophets; or rather, He puts in the first place the sentence of the Jews, which must have been a very strong demonstration, the witness being borne by his enemies; secondly, the man’s life; thirdly, His own judgment; fourthly, the prophet; by all means stopping their mouths.
Then lest they should say, “But what if at that time indeed he were such an one, but now is changed?” He added also what follows; his garments, his prison, and together with these the prophecy.
Then having said, that he is greater than a prophet, He signifies also in what he is greater. And in what is he greater? In being near Him that was come. For, “I send,” saith He, “my messenger before Thy face;” that is, nigh Thee. For as with kings, they who ride near the chariot, these are more illustrious than the rest, just so John also appears in his course near the advent itself. See how He signified John’s excellency by this also; and not even here doth He stop, but adds afterwards His own suffrage as well, saying, “Verily I say unto you, among them that rare born of women, there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist.”
Now what He said is like this: “woman hath not borne a greater than this man.” And His very sentence is indeed sufficient; but if thou art minded to learn from facts also, consider his table, his manner of life, the height of his soul. For he so lived as though he were in heaven: and having got above the necessities of nature, he travelled as it were a new way, spending all his time in hymns and prayers, and holding inter course with none among men, but with God alone continually. For he did not so much as see any of his fellow-servants, neither was he seen by any one of them; he fed not on milk, he enjoyed not the comfort of bed, or roof, or market, or any other of the things of men; and yet he was at once mild and earnest. Hear, for example, how considerately he reasons with his own disciples, courageously with the people of the Jews, how openly with the king. For this cause He said also, “There hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John the Baptist.”
3. But lest the exceeding greatness of His praises should produce a sort of extravagant feeling, the Jews honoring John above Christ; mark how He corrects this also. For as the things which edified His own disciples did harm to the multitudes, they supposing Him an easy kind of person; so again the remedies employed for the multitudes might have proved more mischievous, they deriving from Christ’s words a more reverential opinion of John than of Himself.
Wherefore this also, in an unsuspected way, He corrects by saying, “He that is less, in the kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.” Less in age, and according to the opinion of the multitude, since they even called Him “a gluttonous man and a winebibber;” and, “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” and on every occasion they used to make light of Him.
“What then?” it may be said, is it by comparison that He is greater than John?” Far from it. For neither when John saith, He is mightier than I,” doth he say it as comparing them; nor Paul, when remembering Moses he writes, For this man was counted worthy of more glory than Moses,” doth he so write by way of comparison; and He Himself too, in saying, Behold, a greater than Solomon is here,”15 speaks not as making a comparison.
Or if we should even grant that this was said by Him in the way of comparison, this was done in condescension, because of the weakness of the hearers. For the men really had their gaze very much fixed upon John; and then he was rendered the more illustrious both by his imprisonment, and by his plainness of speech to the king; and it was a great point for the present, that even so much should be received among the multitude. And so too, the Old Testament uses in the same way to correct the souls of the erring, by putting together in a way of comparison things that cannot be compared; as when it saith, “Among the gods there is none like unto Thee, O Lord:” and again, “There is no god like our God.”
Now some affirm, that Christ said this of the apostles, others again, of angels. Thus, when any have turned aside from the truth, they are wont to wander many ways. For what sort of connexion hath it, to speak either of angels or of apostles? And besides, if He were speaking of the apostles, what hindered his bringing them forward by name? whereas, when He is speaking of Himself, He naturally conceals His person, because of the still prevailing suspicion, and that He may not seem to say anything great of Himself; yea, and we often find Him doing so.
But what is, “In the kingdom of heaven?” Among spiritual beings, and all them that are in heaven.
And moreover His saying, “There hath not risen among them that are born of women a greater than John,” suited one contrasting John with Himself, and thus tacitly excepting Himself. For though He too were born of a woman, yet not as John, for He was not a mere man, neither was He born in like manner as a man, but by a strange and wondrous kind of birth.