Jesus puts a riddle to the twenty-first century church:

Among those born of women there has not arisen greater than John the Baptist! Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

Where does this leave John? Could “the least in the kingdom of heaven” be his new rival? I picture some sort of biblical Macduff riding into battle, lopping John’s head off again, then triumphantly revealing that he was never born but was “from his mother’s womb untimey ripped.”

Or perhaps Jesus is describing John as the last of a dying breed of men, a breed unfortunate enough to have preceded Jesus. Christians – those who make up the kingdom of heaven and who take it by storm – are greater in God’s eyes than Jesus’ forerunner, this reasoning goes. John lost his head for a righteous cause, but he was old school, offering an inferior baptism, and he expressed those nagging doubts, didn’t he? (If we believe the part about John’s unbelief, we know far less about first-century eschatology than John did.)

The worst Christian – the weakest example of this race of supermen – eclipses John, this reasoning goes.

I believed this. For years. I know others who believe it still.


Lichen is Greek for “leprous” because the Greek physician and founder of medical botany – Pedanios Dioscorides – back in C.E. 68 thought lichen resembled the skins of lepers and could be used to treat leprosy. – Marcia Bonta, Appalachian Winter

Michael can’t talk about his first visits to Indian leper colonies without choking up. Impoverished and outcast, some of the lepers he met seem to live on worship and thanksgiving alone.

My old solution to Jesus’ riddle supports various forms of American Christian triumphalism. The world is waiting for the sons of God to manifest themselves and kick butt. After just a little more unity, just another move of the Spirit . . .

Jesus begins his parable of the sheep and goats with triumph. The Son of Man comes in his glory “and all the holy angels with him.” But the parable ends with Jesus equating himself with the hungry, the sick, and the prisoners – the “least of these my brethren.” Bad news for goats like me. We are ready for the triumph, but we never figure out the riddle.

[lichen on tree]

Probably the most famous crustose lichen is what has been named manna lichen because some scientists speculated that it might have been the Biblical manna from heaven. – Marcia Bonta, Appalachian Winter

What is that wafer I eat? Lichen. A broken body. The least in the kingdom.

Posted April 2006