At first glance, it may seem like John the Baptist needs to work on his self-esteem. In speaking of the Messiah, John says that he is not worthy even to loosen the thongs of his sandals. This task is the lowest, most menial, most servile task that someone could do. John is saying that his worth is so low in comparison that he is not even worthy of doing the most demeaning task. It might seem like John has an extremely low opinion of himself to think that he is unworthy of something so condescending. But here’s the important thing: John the Baptist is right. He is not worthy to loosen Jesus’s sandals. Jesus is God. Even loosening the thongs of his sandals is such an immense honor that no one, not even John the Baptist, is worthy to do it.
But the amazing thing is that John is asked to do much more than just loosen Jesus’s sandals. John is given the task of baptizing Jesus. If John isn’t even worthy to loosen His sandals, he is infinitely less worthy of baptizing Him. But he does it. John doesn’t let the fact that he is unworthy of baptizing Jesus stop him from doing it. He could have. John could have refused to baptize Jesus, insisting that he was too unworthy of such an honor. In fact, the Gospel according to Matthew records John telling Jesus that he is not worthy to baptize Him. But when Jesus tells John to do it anyways, he does.
I think we can often let our own sense of unworthiness get in the way of following God. For example, when I talk to people about prayer, they often say that they don’t know how to pray. When I tell them that prayer is just talking to God, people often say that they don’t know what to say or are afraid of saying the wrong thing. What is under the surface of this fear that our prayers have to be worthy of God. We are afraid that we might say something “wrong,” something unworthy of God. We don’t feel worthy of being able to freely speak to God, openly and honestly. We are convinced that there must be some sort of “right” way to pray – a way of prayer that is worthy of God. And because we don’t know what that is, we figure it is better to not pray at all rather than pray in a way that is unworthy.
Or when I speak to people about sharing the faith with others, there are often plenty of excuses. “I can’t do that. I’m not smart enough. I’m not skilled enough. I’m not holy enough.” Ultimately, again, the underlying fear is unworthiness. We think that to be worthy to share the faith with others, we have to meet certain requirements. And because we don’t think we meet the requirements, we are not worthy to share the faith, so we don’t do it.
I think of how many times I’ve stood up here at Mass and asked for volunteers for this or that, and, despite the fact that we have over a thousand people at Mass every Sunday, we’re lucky if anyone responds to a request for volunteers. And I wonder how much of that is because people assume that there must be someone better out there to do it than themselves. Surely there is someone with more time, more skills, more expertise – that is to say, more worthy.
But what if worthiness doesn’t matter? John the Baptist was completely unworthy to baptize Jesus. He knew it, and Jesus knew it. But He did it anyways. And, yes, we are unworthy as well. Any prayer that we ever say will be unworthy of God. The most beautiful, well-worded, heartfelt prayer ever said was unworthy of God. We will always be unworthy of sharing the faith. The best, most well-trained missionary or evangelist in history was unworthy of sharing the faith. There will always be someone who is better than we are to fill this or that role in the Church. But the amazing truth is that it doesn’t matter. It didn’t matter to Jesus that John the Baptist was unworthy to baptize Him. And it doesn’t matter that we are unworthy either. Because our worth is not found in ourselves; it is found in Jesus.
Jesus made John the Baptist worthy of baptizing Him. And He makes us worthy as well. Because Jesus was baptized, our baptism unites us with Him. His baptism by John makes our baptism holy. When we are baptized, we become sons and daughters of God. And as sons and daughters of God, we are made worthy. Jesus makes us worthy to pray, and to do so honestly and openly. Jesus makes us worthy to share the faith with others, even though we are imperfect sinners. Jesus makes us worthy to share in His work of building His Kingdom. We are worthy not because of anything thing we have done, but because of what He has done in us.
That is where our focus should be – not on our own unworthiness, but on Jesus who calls us. Jesus called John to baptize Him, regardless of John’s unworthiness. And Jesus calls us also.