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We read at Matthew 11:11 (NRSVCE):

"Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."

What exactly did Jesus mean by the above saying? Was He conveying that whatever the level of holiness one may achieve on earth, one needs to attain special grace to be a member of the kingdom of heaven? Are there any official teachings on Matthew 11:11 available from the perspective of the Catholic Church?

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  • I'm not sure there's a a dogmatic answer to this. But, Chrysostom's 37th homily on Matthew talks about it. And, while I haven't had a chance to read it in full yet, I get the sense that A) It's not intended to be a "strict comparison." And directly related, B) earthly notions of greatness are fundamentally broken. And I can attest that both of those points will be pretty familiar to a Church-going Catholic... – svidgen Apr 4 '16 at 16:23
  • Great question. Was John inside or outside the Kingdom? If inside the only person greater than John is Jesus himself so Jesus is the least. He is the King, but he washed the disciples feet, he came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45), he is the suffering servant for his people. John was great partly shown by great humility (John 1:27, 3:30). If John was outside the Kingdom then the emphasis is on the privileges given to those who are in the Kingdom.. all in the kingdom will have greater privileges than John. The Holy Spirit will be poured out in greater measure. – Andrew Shanks Dec 16 '20 at 7:58
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I do not believe that there are official statements on the subject of Matthew 11:11, at least not at the level of involving papal infallibility. Nevertheless, there are some Catholic writers and Doctors of the Church who have written on the subject of St. John the Baptist as being the greatest born of women, yet remaining the below the least in the kingdom of heaven.

We see in the Psalms that man was made little less than the angels (Psalm 8:4-6).

St Thomas Aquinas quotes the passage of Matthew 11:11 several times in his Summa Theologica for various questions. We must also keep in mind that at the moment Our Lord spoke these words about St John, mankind had not yet been admitted into the kingdom of heaven because Jesus' sacrifice on the Cross had not yet occurred.

Now St. Thomas tells us in one of his questions (Whether there are several orders in one hierarchy?): "The inferior angel is superior to the highest man of our hierarchy, according to the words, "He that is the lesser in the kingdom of heaven, is greater than he"---namely, John the Baptist, than whom "there hath not risen a greater among them that are born of women" (Mat. 11:11). Hence the lesser angel of the heavenly hierarchy can not only cleanse, but also enlighten and perfect, and in a higher way than can the orders of our hierarchy. Thus the heavenly orders are not distinguished by reason of these, but by reason of other different acts.'

Thus one can conclude that Our Lord spoke about St John in comparison with the angels who art in heaven.

In another question (whether Moses was the greatest of the Prophets), St Thomas stated: "Further, it is written (Matthew 11:11) that "there hath not risen, among them that are born of women, a greater than John the Baptist." Therefore Moses was not greater than all the prophets."

As Catholics we believe that, by a divine prerogative from God, Mary was conceived with no stain of original sin. It is not impossible that St. John, although he was not conceived immaculately may have been purified while still in the womb of St Elizabeth! Although not dogma , the Church has not yet pronounced on this subject.

"There is a solid tradition in the Church that says St. John the Baptist was purified of original sin shortly after he was conceived, while still in the womb of St. Elizabeth. So, this episode of the Gospel referring to the child in the womb hearing Our Lady’s voice, understanding her words and loving her is completely credible." - Professor Plino Correa de Olivra

Here is how Wikipedia puts it:

"Some Catholics have held to a belief that John the Baptist never sinned, though this has never been a point of doctrine and is not binding in belief upon any adherent as is the sinlessness of Mary. In her Treatise of Prayer, Saint Catherine of Siena includes a brief altercation with the Devil regarding her fight due to the Devil attempting to lure her with vanity and flattery. Speaking in the first person, Saint Catherine of Siena responds to the Devil with the following words:

...humiliation of yourself, and you answered the Devil with these words: 'Wretch that I am! John the Baptist never sinned and was sanctified in his mother's womb. And I have committed so many sins..." — Catherine of Siena, , A Treatise of Prayer, 1370.[85][86]" St Catherine of Sienna was declared a Doctor of the Church on October 3, 1970 by Pope Paul VI.

The Catholic Encyclopedia has this to say:

"Now during the sixth month, the Annunciation had taken place, and, as Mary had heard from the angel the fact of her cousin's conceiving, she went "with haste" to congratulate her. "And it came to pass, that when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the infant" — filled, like the mother, with the Holy Ghost — "leaped for joy in her womb", as if to acknowledge the presence of his Lord. Then was accomplished the prophetic utterance of the angel that the child should "be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother's womb". Now, as the presence of any sin whatever is incompatible with the indwelling of the Holy Ghost in the soul, it follows that at this moment John was cleansed from the stain of original sin. When "Elizabeth's full time of being delivered was come. . .she brought forth a son" (1:57); and "on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they called him by his father's name Zachary. And his mother answering, said: Not so, but he shall be called John. And they said to her: There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made sign to his father, how he would have him called. And demanding a writing table, he wrote, saying: John is his name. And they all wondered" (1:59-63). They were not aware that no better name could be applied (John, Hebrew; Jehohanan, i.e. "Jahweh hath mercy") to him who, as his father prophesied, was to "go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation to his people, unto remission of their sins: through the bowels of the mercy of our God" (1:76-78). Moreover, all these events, to wit, a child born to an aged couple, Zachary's sudden dumbness, his equally sudden recovery of speech, his astounding utterance, might justly strike with wonderment the assembled neighbours; these could hardly help asking: "What an one, think ye, shall this child be?" (1:66)." - New Advent.

Now if St. John was in fact purified while in the womb of his mother he would the greatest of those born of women. Mary's immaculate conception still puts her above St. John in the eyes of the Church!

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Jesus is speaking about two covenants, the Mosaic Law and the New Covenant. How, if one is born under Law, to be even as great or greater if it were possible as was John the Baptist who was the precursor to the Messiah who made the New Covenant, the least in the New Covenant is greater than John.

John was a prophet, fulling what was prophesied of the forerunner.

But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? yea, I say unto you, and more than a prophet. For this is he [John the Baptist], of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Mt. 11:9-10

Of the other Old Testament prophets, there had been none who had been prophesied to come. But only the forerunner. This is what made John great.

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Isaiah 40:3

Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. Malachi 3:1

As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. Mark 1:2

John also marks the terminus of the Old Testament prophets. Once Messiah arrives, the need for the final forerunner announcing Messiah is over. In this sense too, John is greatest, the culmination of Old Testament prophecy.

For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. Mat 11:13

And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself. Luke 24:27

So, with this in mind, how is the least in the Kingdom greater than John? Because without Messiah's New Covenant, the Old was impossible for men to fulfill.

And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as it is at this day. And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the LORD our God, as he hath commanded us. Deut 6:24-25

But if you fail at one point, you fail it all. This will happen to all, but Messiah, which is why the sacrificial system was set up.

For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. James 2:10

What's the solution?

For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth. Romans 10:3-4

And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith: Phil 3:9

In short, John, like Messiah, was prophesied to come as the forerunner, the end of the valid prophetic line of the Old Testament. He was the greatest. But even as great as he was, like everyone else, we all fall short. But thanks be to Messiah who saves by grace through faith even the least of us.

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