In today’s Gospel, we see Jesus doing something he rarely did during his ministry:
Amen, I say to you,
among those born of women
there has been none greater than John the Baptist
So what is so rare about this statement? Jesus is praising someone! If you look through the Gospels, he scarcely ever praises others – and the few he praises, such as the centurion (Matthew 8:10) or the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:28), are usually those not considered part of the people of God. He even follows his praise of John by saying, “yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (I can just see John thinking, “thanks a lot for the compliment, Jesus!”)
This reticence to dispense praise goes against the spirit of our age. How often do we hear from the pulpit how great our parish is? How often are we told to lavish praise on our children? How often is the slightest accomplishment praised as if it were equivalent to landing on the moon? Yet Jesus felt no need to praise other people. Why is that?
I think part of the reason is simply cultural. Christ did not live in a time in which the praise was given freely. If he had been the equivalent of the modern glad-handing salesman, most of his contemporaries would have thought him crazy.
But I think his restraint in giving out compliments goes deeper than that. Christ recognizes no one is good but God alone (Matthew 19:17); he knows that any good someone does is due to God’s grace. See what happens after Peter makes his confession of faith – a confession no one else was able at this point to make:
Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father (Matthew 16:17)
Jesus doesn’t say, “Great job Simon! You really are a bright guy! I’m so happy that you are part of my team!” No, Jesus instead points to the true source of Peter’s enlightenment: God.
We are complimented and praised so much in our day that it is easy to begin to think we are the source of our goodness. But this is a lie from the devil, one that he has been telling since the time of Adam and Eve. Anything good we do, any strength we have, any accomplishment we achieve: they all have their source in God alone.
To Him alone be praise and glory and honor.