January 13, 2013 by jmw
Today (January 13) is ‘Baptism of Christ’ Sunday. Like so many stories from the gospels, the baptism of Jesus is yet another opportunity to read God’s critique of the religious establishment. Since Christmas I have been following Luke’s account of the life of Jesus and it is in Luke that we find a lot of details about John the baptizer (his birth, content of his ministry, etc.). It is in the context of John the baptizer’s ministry that Christ’s baptism must be understood.
What we know quite certainly about John is that he began a counter-establishment ‘wilderness movement’ out near the Jordan River. Josephus, the Jewish historian, recorded this in his Antiquities. John proclaimed the coming of the kingdom of God and baptized fellow Jews in the river whilst preaching repentance and forgiveness of sins. N.T. Wright explains, “John announced imminent judgment on the nation of Israel… warning that her status as YHWH’s covenant people would not be enough, by itself, to saver her from the coming disaster,” (JVG, 160). This is seen quite clearly in Luke’s first recorded words out of John’s mouth: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!” Many readers of the gospels fail to comprehend the scandal of John’s ministry: he offered in the wilderness that which was supposedly only obtained in the Temple, i.e. the religious establishment. Any movement offering water baptism in the wilderness (outside of Jerusalem) would have been seen as a “new” movement, a new Exodus, and a counter-establishment one at that. Such is the setting for the baptism of Jesus.
It strikes me as rather strange that the God of the Jewish people (indeed, the God of the Temple establishment) would say “With you I am well pleased” to the Jesus who circumvents the Temple establishment in order to join the dissidents camping out by the Jordan. But this is exactly what we read in the synoptic gospel accounts. Could it be that the affirmation heard from heaven is intimately connected with Jesus’ submission to be baptized into John’s ministry? That is, perhaps the words of God, “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased,” is less a statement of ‘family relations’ and more a statement of mission/vocation that is bound up with Jesus’ self-identification with the counter-Temple movement.
Following his baptism, Jesus begins his mission to proclaim good news to the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed (4:18) and he does this apart from Jerusalem, in the small towns and villages. Luke (unlike John) records no encounters with Jerusalem until Jesus comes back to the holy city as king (19:28) – but even this final encounter is laden with overtones of sadness as Jesus laments the city’s inability to repent from her nationalistic, violent ways (19:41-44). The gospel of Luke is forceful critique of the religious establishment and it all begins with the baptism of Jesus.
This reflection on Jesus’ baptism reminds me of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“The Pauline question whether circumcision is a condition of justification seems to me in present-day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation. I often ask myself why a “Christian instinct” draws me more to the religionless people than to the religious, by which I don’t in the least mean with any evangelizing intention, but, I might almost say, ‘in brotherliness.’ While I’m often reluctant to mention God by name to religious people – because that name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I feel myself to be slightly dishonest. (It’s particularly bad when others start to talk in religious jargon; I then dry up almost completely and feel awkward and uncomfortable – to people with no religion I can on occasion mention God by name quite calmly and as a matter of course.)” (A Testament to Freedom, 502-503)