Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord, Year A, Matthew 3:13-17
January, 9, 2010
By a newspaper account, kidnap gangs in Mindanao and Sulu (Philippines), including the Abu Sayaf, have increasingly targeted priests and sisters working in missionary areas since 1986. Killed among the priest-captives were Rev Roel Gallardo, Rev Benjamin Inocencio, and Rev Rufus Halley. Because of the kidnapping and abduction cases, the Catholic bishops of Mindanao at one time were reported to have “called on all priests, especially those assigned in areas of conflict, to resist any abduction attempts—at all costs. Some priests have interpreted the call as tantamount to ordering them to arm and defend themselves from kidnappers.” However, the same report said that the Vatican’s ambassador to the Philippines at that time, Abp Antonio Franco, “frowned upon suggestions that priests assigned in areas of conflict in Mindanao should be armed.” Ferdinand Zualosa, in his article “Arming of Priests Rejected” quoted the Nuncio as saying that “arming our priests is a crazy idea.” Must priests, and any Christians for that matter, armed themselves in their mission?
Today’s Gospel (Matt 3:13-17), which is about the baptism of Jesus, can help shed light on this problem. Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist exhibits an editorial reworking of his Markan source principally in the insertion of a dialogue between John and Jesus. It seems that by the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, Christians were already wrestling with a problem: If Jesus, who is God’s Son, is sinless, how come he submitted himself to John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance? Does his submission to John’s baptism imply an acknowledgment of John’s superiority, as John’s disciples seem to have claimed? By inserting the dialogue between these two characters, Matthew makes two points. First, John is made to recognize the superior of Jesus: “I should be baptized by you, yet you come to me” (Matt 3:14). Secondly, though superior to John, Jesus submitted himself to John’s baptism not because he needed repentance--which is what baptism of repentance implies—since he was sinless, but “in order to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15b). It may be noted that in Matthew, “to fulfill” does not simply mean “to obey” or “to do”; it usually means to fulfill a prophecy, and while “righteousness” can mean moral conduct in keeping with God’s will (cf Matt 5:10), in the present context it seems to mean the saving activity of God, as in Matthew 6:33 (“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides”). The crucial text therefore means that Jesus allowed himself to be baptized by John the Baptist in order to fulfill the prophecies and thereby fulfill God’s work of salvation. If Jesus came, in other words, it was to fulfill God’s purpose in salvation history, and his baptism by John was part of God’s saving plan that Jesus had to do. But what did God demand in the prophecies for the salvation of the human race?
One of the prophets who spoke of the work of God’s anointed was Isaiah. In the 1st Reading today (Isa 42:1-4.6-7), he describes the Messiah’s person and mission: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations, 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, until he establishes justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait for his teaching” (Isa 42:1-4). It is this Servant that Matthew has in mind when in his account of the baptism of Jesus the heavenly voice confirms Jesus as the Son of God whom God delights in (Matt 3:17; Isa 42:1). In other words, for Matthew this Isaianic prophecy finds fulfillment in Jesus. According to Isaiah, in fulfilling the mission God gave him, the Messiah assumes the role of the Servant of Yahweh; it is he of whom God said, “I have called you for the victory of justice” (Isa 46:6). For this reason, he receives the Spirit of God (Isa 42:1b; Matt 12:18), takes up our infirmities and endures our sufferings (Isa 53:4; Matt 8:17), and gives his life as a ransom for all (Isa 53:6-12; Matt 20:28). As such, he is the paradigm of a righteous sufferer, on account of which he accepts the good portion, the portion of the chastised; he takes sides with the poor and the powerless, even as he is being delivered into the hands of the mighty and the powerful. His mission is not only to bring Israel to righteousness, but also the deliver justice to the nations. This is what it means to be God’s beloved Son (Isa 42:1; Matt 3:17). For Matthew, it appears that the baptism of Jesus by John is no less than an epiphany—it proclaims the identity of Jesus as the Servant of Yahweh.
Since in Christian theology it is by baptism that we share in the mission of Jesus which the Father gave him, today’s message is a big challenge to all of us. In our time, much has been said about changing the world, about bringing justice and peace to it. In fact, many of us take up good causes to make this world a better place to live in; we protest against suppression of human rights, environmental destruction, dictatorial regimes, lopsided economy and many other issues. As the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines puts it, we exercise our share in the kingly mission of Christ whenever “we make the world a place more worthy of the children of God, whenever by our work we improve the world and permeate it with the values of Christ, whenever we are able to overcome sin in ourselves and in the environment and allow the grace of God to break through into the world.” But often enough, we are scared of the toll, the cost of giving ourselves to these causes. Some of us do not want to suffer. We are afraid of ridicule, of dismissal for refusing to compromise higher values. Indeed, many of us do not want to die for the mission. We are simply scared of dying.
Of course, it is not easy to die for the mission; but still, the Nuncio is correct when he says that arming the priests is a crazy idea. For a priest to arm himself with a gun, or think that power comes out of the barrel of a gun, is inconsistent with his calling to share in the kingly mission of Jesus. If the vocation to become servants of Yahweh has anything to tell us, it is that we have to prefer being killed to bearing arms and that we can effect change in the world only if we are willing to stick out our necks, to suffer for others. This is God’s offer of salvation. It is always good to recall that in the old Russia, there were people known as “fools for Christ.” In some part of that empire, we are told that those who commit murder, rape and other crimes received severe beatings. But these “fools for Christ” volunteered to be whipped in place of these thieves, murderers and rapists. We might think it is a crazy idea, but listen to their logic: When these criminals are punished, they utter invectives, shout out hate, and the atmosphere is filled with hatred and enmity. Men breathe insults, hatred and despair. But when the fools received the beatings, they do not shout; they keep silent, not uttering any words of complaint, because they are not conscious of any guilt, and their silence fills the world with love. And it is this atmosphere of love, when it envelops the whole world, that will save it from sin, suffering and death. Consequently, even though bearing arms may be logical to our normal society, as baptized Christians we must be Christ’s fools, preferring suffering to bearing arms, even though it would appear, in the eyes of our secular society, foolish to do so.