Jesus' baptism creates problems for the
evangelists. Each of the first three treat it differently; John never
mentions it. The difficulty springs from a belief that superiors baptize
inferiors. Since Christians believe Jesus is superior to John the Baptizer,
why does John baptize Him? Coupled with this belief is that fact that many
of John's disciples didn't disappear or convert to Christianity after
his martyrdom. They continued to be his followers, some even contending that
John, not Jesus, was the long-awaited Messiah. Mention-ing John's baptism
of Jesus could validate their position.
Yet our evangelists are forced to mention it.
The event seems to be a turning point in the historical Jesus' life and
ministry. To argue their point that Jesus is more important than John, the
Gospel writers have John testify before the baptism that Jesus is somehow
superior to him.
Matthew's treatment is unique. He posits a
dialogue between Jesus and the Baptizer (Mt 3: 13-17). John begins by
stating, "I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to
me?" Jesus replies, "Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us
to fulfill all righteousness." In other words, "Though it's
illogical, baptize me, because that's the way it's supposed to be
Scholars point to a significant change of words
in what follows. Everyone presumes Matthew has a copy of Mark's Gospel in
front of him as he writes. Mark quotes the "voice from the
heavens" saying, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well
pleased!" Matthew's voice says, "This is my beloved son, with
whom I am well pleased."
Though most readers don't notice the
deliberate change, it demonstrates a significant adjustment in theology.
Pre-suming Jesus is God from His conception in Mary's womb, Matthew doesn't
think Jesus needs a divine annunciation. He takes for granted Jesus already
knows who He is. Jesus' task is to proclaim His divinity to others.
An angel did so to Joseph in the preceding
chapter, and now the voice does so for John and the others standing around
at the Jordan. Within the few years between Mark and Matthew, Jesus has been
relieved of the burden of self-discovery. Now, others must discover who He
An event Mark believes is pivotal for the
historical Jesus' life and ministry is reduced by Matthew into something
which simply "fulfills all righteousness." It occasions an
"epiphany" not for Jesus, but for His future disciples. We ask how
this event affects us, not Jesus.
'Lord of all'
Luke continues down this theological path in
the second reading (Acts 10: 34-38). When Peter breaks with tradition and
baptizes the Gentile Cornelius, he describes Jesus as the one God sent to
"proclaim peace," making Him "Lord of all." We're no
longer interested in what's going on in Jesus' mind. Now it's
important only to know "God was with Him."
That makes the first reading (Is 42: 1-4, 6-7)
even more intriguing. The passage contains the first "Song of the
Suffering Servant of Yahweh:" the prophet's personal reflection on
his ministry. Though called by Yahweh to be a prophet, he's to live his
calling differently from any prophet before him: "Not crying out, not
shouting, not making his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he shall
not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench."
He's convinced his words eventually will
reach and effect Gentiles, yet he also knows no one has ever proclaimed
Yahweh's word this way before.
Sunday's readings mirror some of our own
experiences. Most people know us only on the level of our intersecting their
lives. Few take the time or make the effort to understand what's going on
in us to bring about that intersection. Jesus' baptism provides a yearly
opportunity to put ourselves in the background and reflect on what makes
others tick - even the historical Jesus.