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JANUARY 13, 2008: BAPTISM OF JESUS

Readings: 

Isaiah 42: 1-4, 6-7
Acts 10:34-38
Matthew 3:13-17

One of the most rewarding aspects of critically studying the Christian Scriptures is to discover how one evangelist changes the words or the theology of a prior evangelist. This is especially easy to do when you're reading Matthew or Luke and also have a copy of Mark at hand. Each had Mark's manuscript unrolled on his desk when he composes his own gospel. For the most part, both faithfully copy the sections of Mark they include in their works. But in some passages, the changes they make, or the material they leave out is quite significant. Nowhere more so than in Matthew's account of Jesus’ baptism, especially in what the "voice from heaven" proclaimed as Jesus "came up from the water."

Matthew changes just two words. He switches Mark's "You are . . .” to "This is . . . ." The change alters the whole direction of the narrative.

In Mark, Jesus' baptism includes an annunciation informing him of his divine condition. Just as Matthew narrates an annunciation to Joseph and Luke posits an annunciation to Mary, the original gospel writer thinks it necessary that Jesus also receive a heavenly notice about "what's going on." The voice directs "You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased!" to Jesus.

By changing the _You are_ to _This is_, Matthew addresses these words of recognition and approval not to Jesus, but to anyone who happens to be in that specific area of the Jordan River.

Matthew's word change mirrors a theological change taking place n the early Christian community for whom he writes. More and more, Jesus' followers zeroed in on what Jesus meant for them instead of concentrating on what Jesus meant for Jesus. They've become more concerned with what's going on in their minds and hearts because of Jesus' ministry than what was going on in Jesus' mind and heart during his ministry.

We know John's baptism played a crucial role in Jesus' life. Early Christian proclamations of the good news, including the one in today's Acts pericope, almost always mention the Baptist's activity. "You know ... what has happened all over Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached . . . ." But as I mentioned above, Matthew makes the event an occasion for people to begin discerning who Jesus is. Mark makes it an occasion for Jesus to begin discerning who Jesus is.

In doing so, Mark's simply following the lead of the greatest prophet of the Hebrew Scriptures: Deutero-Isaiah. Like Mark's Jesus, he also has to discover his "calling," not just a generic calling to discipleship, but a specific calling, directed uniquely to himself.

Deutero-Isaiah isn't just called to be a prophet. Yahweh summons him to be a prophet unlike any of his high profile predecessors. This conscience of the Babylonian Exile is expected to develop a persona quite different from Amos or Jeremiah. He'll convey Yahweh's word, "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 . . . ."

Not only his style, but also his audience will be unique.

Deutero-Isaiah's words will go beyond his fellow-Jews. Yahweh informs him that he's "to bring forth justice to the nations (Gentiles,)" assuring him "the coast lands (also Gentiles) will wait for his teaching." The prophet's oracles will touch not only Jews; they'll have an effect on every person on the face of the earth.

As followers of Jesus, it's essential we discover how his presence in our lives affects our lives. But it's also essential to surface how that presence informs us of our unique calling, a calling only we have received, a calling for which only we are responsible.