We don’t know exactly where this story takes place, but the references to reeds and wilderness and palaces point to the Jordan River area near Jericho—a place associated with John the Baptist. It’s a place of superlatives. A place of great natural beauty: the hauntingly beautiful Judean Desert visible in the distance, the spectacular escarpments along the west side of the Dead Sea, the mountains of Moab across the valley. The Jordan River is part of the Great Rift Valley, a geological feature extending 3,700 miles from Lebanon south into Africa. Jericho is the oldest inhabited city in the world (11,000 years) and the lowest inhabited city in the world—the nearby Dead Sea is over a thousand feet below sea level. 110 in the shade in the summer—lovely in the winter. Even today people from Jerusalem make the 15 mile trek down to Jericho in the winter to get away from the rain and cold and snow.
Jesus chides the crowd—what did they come out to see? What are they looking for? Perhaps he’s taking a jab at some of Herod’s entourage in fine clothes: Herod had two palaces in the area. People have come out for all kinds of reasons, seeking all kinds of things: enlightenment, the fine view, sheer entertainment. But, he says, they’ve really come out to see a prophet. And even more—though they don’t realize it. John, he says, is the greatest human being ever. And then, cryptically, “the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.”
Jesus speaks often of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God—but always obliquely, usually in parables and metaphors. We’re still trying to figure out exactly what he meant by the Kingdom—which is to be on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus has left only clues—we have to try to solve the mystery. He has spoken in parables and figurative language because whatever this Kingdom of Heaven is, it is beyond our capacity to fully understand, at least for now. We’ve only been pointed in the direction.
We may have come here to this room for all kinds of reasons, seeking all kinds of things: enlightenment, the fine view, sheer entertainment perhaps. But whatever we think we’re looking for, what we truly seek is the place of superlatives. Whatever the Kingdom is, it is the place of superlatives. The least in the Kingdom greater than the greatest? Are we ready to find that for which we seek? The One for whom we seek? Are we ready to be greater than the greatest?
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