I recently got the following question by email:
The scriptures tell us that among those born of women there have been none greater than John the baptist. So how do we reconcile this with Mary being more blessed than all?
The question is referring to Matthew 11:11, in which Jesus declares:
Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
In this passage, our Lord is extolling the importance of John the Baptist in the plan of salvation. As the last of the prophets, he had the unique role as the forerunner to Christ. Furthermore, his greatness is seen in his humility: instead of his important role leading to pride, John the Baptist chose the humble path, making his whole life one that points to another. As Scripture constantly repeats, it is the humble who are exalted and the exalted who are humbled.
But does this statement mean that John the Baptist is “greater” than Mary? After all, both were “born of women”. To understand this saying of Jesus, one must understand that Jesus spoke in the way of the people around him; in other words, as a 1st century Jew (after all, he WAS a 1st century Jew). One of the common ways rabbis in that time spoke was to make an absolute statement to make a point, but which was understood as one that was not to be taken literally. For example, Jesus commanded that we call no one “father”, yet no one stopped calling their father by that name. He commanded that we cut off our hand if it causes us to sin, and none of his followers actually believed that they should dismember themselves. These “absolute” statements have a way of making a strong point that impresses upon the mind the point being made, but they are not to be taken literally.
But how do we know that this particular instance is an example of this type of “absolute” statement? Because we know for a fact that there is one “born of women” that is greater than John the Baptist: Jesus himself. After all, Jesus was truly born of Mary, and he is far greater than John the Baptist. Matthew himself in his Gospel takes pains to show us that Jesus is both born of a woman and that he is greater than John the Baptist, yet he has no problem in reporting this saying of Jesus in his Gospel. So we know that Jesus highly honors John the Baptist, but also that his statement should not be taken completely literally.