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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before January 13, 2014

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Matthew 3:13-17

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

What I am Learning:

In Palestine in the first century, a father would announce his son’s dedication as a good son. This cemented the fact that the son had a share in the father’s honor rating. This is what happens in this passage, according to Malina and Rohrbaugh. The son could then serve as the father’s agent in the community, and people would better trust the son to faithfully represent the father’s interests. This meant that the son could negotiate deals on the father’s behalf and people would trust the contract would meet the father’s desires.

The difference between this and a normal announcement is that Jesus’ father is God. This means that Jesus shares in God’s honor rating, which obviously is the highest honor rating possible. By telling this story, Matthew is making a claim that Jesus’ relationship with God is unique and that his status demands our obedience and attention.

This is a claim. It is a statement of faith by Matthew.

This is not proof, however!

It would be all to easy to follow typical circular logic here: 1) God exists, 2) God inspired the Bible, 3) the Bible tells us that Jesus is the Son of God, 4) Jesus tells us about God and that God exists (go back to 1).

BOOOOOORRRRING!

It is more than boring, however, as often pastors add to this circular logic an authoritarian edge: that they received a call from God to preach the Bible and therefore you must believe and obey them. Like the claim to a “literal interpretation” this is a claim to power over other people that some people are all to ready to accept.

So here is a question: Is Matthew being an authoritarian here by claiming that Jesus is God’s Son?

I don’t think so and here is why.

First, there is a difference between authority and authoritarianism. Authority is basically one’s influence and power recognized by others. Authoritarianism is a particular use of authority in which the one in power denies or limits the power and freedom of others. Matthew claims that Jesus has authority, but as we will see in a moment, this authority is not authoritarian.

Second, by claiming that Jesus is the Son of God in this story, Matthew tells a counter story to the one about Caesar being the son of the god Apollo, and Tiberius the grandson of Apollo. I think any first century person in the Empire would have heard this as a counter story. In that historical context, this claim was in opposition to the authoritarian rule of the Romans.

Third, Matthew does some clever interpretation as he narrates what God says about Jesus.

“This is my son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

This is a quote from two important parts of the Hebrew bible: Psalm 2 and Isaiah 42. Psalm 2 was used in the inauguration of Jewish kings. It was a way of saying that the king faithfully represents God’s will for the nation, or at least should. The messiah was to be one part king and one part priest. Isaiah 42 describes the “suffering servant.” In it this section Isaiah says that the best way for the People of Israel to get out of Babylon is through nonviolent resistance.

Christians were the first to take these two strands from the Hebrew bible and put them together, according to NT Wright.

Jesus is the Messiah, he has authority, but the way he will use his authority will deeply respect the dignity of human beings by calling them to the fullness of their potential, engaging and resisting injustices which deny human dignity and honoring even our enemies with a pledge not to harm them.

Jesus is God’s Son, but one who would rather suffer than inflict suffering.

And, here’s the kicker: if this is the way God’s Son acts, and he faithfully represents God, then this is actually the way God acts. By definition, then, Jesus cannot act in an authoritarian way because God is not an authoritarian!

In TCC’s theological documents, we describe leadership as orienting others to the reign of God by engaging others with your authentic self, so that others may be more authentic to the person God is creating them to be.

All of us are created in the image of God, we are all sisters and brothers who are sons and daughters of God. We all have authority and responsibility for how we exercise it. In my view, this scene from Matthew tells us that to be ourselves is to exercise our authority—that is our God given influence within community—in a way that frees others to exercise theirs in community. In recognizing Jesus’ authority to describe how God is, we are invited to recognize our own authority within community. In Jesus, God is seeking our wholeness and our humanity and is evoking the best we have to offer.

Of course it is still a faith claim. There are many who say that engaging injustice with nonviolent engagement is “fine when things are easy, but doesn’t really work.” There are many who say that Jesus was an idealistic dreamer, but look what happened to him. There are many who say we can do nothing in the face of the challenges human beings are experiencing. Sometimes we ourselves harbor such doubts.

Maybe Jesus did, too.

Maybe that’s why the voice from heaven spoke to him.

Maybe he needed to hear those words.

When we are baptized, and become a part of the body of Christ in the world, God speaks those words to us: “You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.”