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 done."

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 is.

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.