The Puzzle of the Baptism of Jesus
The Baptism of Jesus presented a puzzle to early Christians. If Jesus was the Son of God and therefor without sin, the why on earth would He go to be baptized by John along with all the other repentant sinners in the Jordan? The fact is that the event is recorded by all four of the evangelists, and therefore we can say with a high degree of confidence that this event probably happened as we hear it. However, if Jesus, a man like all of us, was baptized with John’s baptism of repentance, then doesn’t that imply that He was not without sin? This was the puzzle for the early Church; maybe it’s puzzling to you as well.
The answer to this puzzle can be found in one significant word that has an important place in Scripture: justice. Our Liturgy of the Word draws our attention to this justice first through the prophet Isaiah who tells us: “Thus says the LORD: 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.”The One whom God choses is revealed today as Jesus, as the Voice from heaven declares, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” Therefore, it is Jesus who will show us what this divine justice is and how we are going to participate in it.
Matthew’s version of this episode addresses the puzzle of why Jesus was there in the Jordan at all. When John objects to Christ’s baptism, Jesus replies, “Let it be for now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” That word, “righteousness,” is the same as the word for justice. And in the Biblical sense, justice is more than just the legal attitude that we might think today. For the people of God in the Bible, “justice” or “righteousness” has to do with relationship – a proper relationship between God and man, as well as between human beings here on earth. When Jesus stepped down into the Jordan, rather than being washed of sin, He sealed the wonderful work of the Incarnation, and God’s union with man in His very person. God and sinner, reconciled.
But what does it mean for us to live justly? What is it to be “justified” or made righteous? Do we have any work to do in this marvelous endeavor?
The prophet teaches us what we are called to do: I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice, I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness. As Jesus is baptized and brings about the wonderful union of God and man for us, we are charged with the same task of justice that He began with His ministry, the same ministry that continues in the Church.
Now, we are taken by the hand of God and declared well-pleasing to Him, His adopted children. We are set as a covenant for the people of the world in order to be agents of the justice that God desires, the justice that Jesus established. It cannot be our desire or work to break bruised reeds or to snuff out smoldering wicks. Rather, we are meant to be a light for the nations in order to open their eyes to the presence of God among us, so they may see the action of the Lord on their behalf and give God the glory.
This is why violence, anger, aggression, fear, or vengeance can never be a part of our justice. They are not part of God’s justice. Too often, we seek justice through getting even – by returning the same evil for evil received. When we extinguish someone else’s light – even the light of someone who has hurt us – then the world becomes that much darker. And we are not meant for darkness. In fact, we are called to bring others out of darkness, not plunge them deeper into it.
This is why Jesus is baptized today. He goes where we are called to follow. As disciples, our goal should always be to imitate Christ; to be the same sort of agent of God’s justice in the world, so that the blind may see and the sick be healed. The world is full of that darkness, it is full of injustice – people estranged from one another, factions vilifying each other, hatred triumphing here and there. As disciples, it is our charge to say, “No more!” Let the justice of Christ be established in our hearts, so that we can share His light with the world.