A People's Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew 3
The Scriptures are, by and large, set in a context of oppression and marginalization. Sometimes the audience is the oppressed; sometimes it's the oppressors. Sometimes both audiences are, for all intents and purposes, one and the same. We overlook stuff when we forget that those of us who are comfortable are not necessarily the ones to whom God is speaking words of comfort. Hence the ongoing project I'm working on:
His message was simple and austere, like his desert surroundings. John the Baptizer, born into privilege as son of a temple priest, was also a miracle child, having been born to parents who had long before given up on having children. His character here demonstrates the turbulent religious climate at the time of Jesus' ministry, as he rejected the formal religious system of his father and embraced the ascetic lifestyle ("a diet of locusts and wild honey") and fiery message of a renegade prophet: "Prepare for God's arrival! Make the road smooth and straight!" Here he references the prophet Isaiah:
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
While these words allude to a great leveling in society - bad news, generally, for people who had secured power for themselves - its context is a message of comfort: "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem," Isaiah is instructed by God. It is worth remembering at all times that God offers good news to people who struggle and suffer; God's words of confrontation always have a larger context of loving concern.
TWEET THIS: God's words of confrontation always have a larger context of loving concern.
That John drew diverse crowds is noteworthy, both as a demonstration of the religious upheaval taking place, and as a context for Jesus' first public display of his divine mission.
When John realized that a lot of Pharisees and Sadducees were showing up for a baptismal experience because it was becoming the popular thing to do, he exploded. As is often the case, sincere acts of repentance often degrade into pious performance; much as politicians who make a show of going to church, or scandalized televangelists who make a tear-filled public confession of scandalous behavior and immediately return to fundraising, such appropriations of earnest acts of commitment simultaneously buttress the public profile of people in power while also subverting the enduring value of more authentic demonstrations. John's response is telling: "Descendants of Abraham are a dime a dozen. What counts is your life." As Jesus himself will affirm, John declares that public spectacles and public behavior alike are suspect; our character and commitment are revealed in small, even secret ways, far removed from any derived benefit.
“The main character in this drama — compared to him I’m a mere stagehand — will ignite the kingdom life within you." As powerful and momentous as John's ministry was, it was effectively remedial; the more proactive, constructive, directive ministry was still to come, through Jesus. "He’s going to clean house — make a clean sweep of your lives." If John represents a renaissance of the prophetic tradition, with strong confrontational language leading to a renewed commitment to justice and social parity, then Jesus (at least according to John) represents revolution, a total overhaul of the social order.
Note that John sees himself, and consequently his ministry, as subordinate to Jesus. He is "a mere stagehand" for the main act to come. And when Jesus ultimately presents himself for baptism, John objects: “I’m the one who needs to be baptized, not you!”
“God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.” Why would Jesus, self-conscious of his unique mission, accept a baptism of repentance by John, who himself admits his inferiority? A recurring theme in Jesus' teaching (and, importantly, his visions of the end) is the great leveling of Isaiah 40, the flattening of social hierarchies. Guests at the wedding banquet that represents the end of the age range from the powerful to the penniless; moreover, men and women of ill repute and little to no means made regular appearances alongside Jesus at meals throughout the Gospels. It isn't the pecking order in this baptism that is important to Jesus; it's "God's work [of] putting things right" that matters. In this respect, both John the Baptizer and Jesus the Messiah are playing roles in an epic story; their vocation is fulfilled not by achieving status but by playing their part well.
“This is my Son, chosen and marked by my love, delight of my life.” Jesus may be playing a part in a story, but he is the central character in it. He will have his credentials repeatedly challenged by powerful people in scenes to come, but here his credentials are clear: God himself participates in Jesus' baptism, which becomes effectively an ordination, a king's anointing:
"You are my son;
today I have become your father.
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession. ...
Therefore, you kings, be wise;
be warned, you rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.
Kiss his son, or he will be angry
and your way will lead to your destruction.
TWEET THIS: Jesus' mission is good news for the people, but bad news for those who have achieved power and status.
This first public declaration of Jesus' mission is good news for the people, but once again it is bad news for those who have achieved power and status, often on the backs of people they were sworn to serve and protect. Jesus' anointing is a warning to "you rulers of the earth": they, like everyone else, are subject to the ultimate Sovereign God of creation, and their rejection of Jesus - and the social order he represents - will be counted as treason, and dealt with accordingly.
A People's Commentary on the New TestamentIn this project I attempt to notice in the Scriptures a running theme of "striving" (in the words of people's historian Howard Zinn) "against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make ideals [professed in public] a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that." I invite you to undertake it as well:
- Pick a chapter of the New Testament and interpret it online.
- As you write, think about people you know (or see, or imagine) who are not sitting in the halls of power.
- Think of the author of your particular scripture text not as someone with an advance on royalties in the bank and a Macbook Pro on their lap but as someone with no place to lay their head.
- Use the hashtag #PeoplesCommentary so the rest of us can find it, and so eventually we can sync the whole thing together.