Commentary on Matthew 3:13-17
God is not ecstatic. The Creator is not jumping for joy.
The Divine is merely pleased. The Holy One simply says, “Very well.”
This is the response of God at the baptism of Jesus. The heavens open. There is a dove. God speaks. Well, technically a voice from heaven speaks (Matthew 3:17). It is as if there is another “epiphany” or “divine show” as discussed last week. This is part two of a seraphic demonstration. Nonetheless, God’s response is not of exponential proportions. It is not like the response shouted by fans at athletic events or concerts. No, in a kind of anthropomorphic coolness, the Creator is merely pleased or as the Greek eudokeo notes, content.
One would expect more. After all according to Matthew Jesus has been through a lot since making his journey to from heaven to Bethlehem. He was almost killed by a deranged tyrant (Matthew 2:16). He had to travel hundreds of miles to Egypt and live as a refugee there (2:13). His parents could not return to their paternal birthplace because even the new ruler of Judea had some surly insecurity issues (2:23). Now, a few decades later Jesus travels from this place, Galilee, to be baptized by John in the Jordan. His vicissitudes in human form have not been light. Surely, a baptism in the wilderness (3:1) would garner more applause.
Matthew continues this keen approach to literary parallelism. The writer pushes further the correlation between Israel’s past and its present condition. The past few lessons focused on Egypt as a refuge for Mary, Joseph, and Jesus as it was a place of safety for Joseph after his brothers sold him into slavery. A pharaoh in Egypt feared Hebrew children as Herod displayed much angst over Jesus. After the Exodus the Israelites spent forty years wandering in the wilderness. Now in Matthew’s narrative, almost thirty years after his sojourn in Egypt, Jesus meets John in the wilderness. Matthew situates Jesus as the literary embodiment, theological fulfillment, and messianic answer to his primarily Jewish audience’s needs. The New Moses has come to deliver God’s people.
Thus, it is almost anticlimactic that the Divine’s only response to the baptism of Jesus is that of “being pleased,” “content,” or “very well.” To be fair, Jesus has done nothing—yet. He has merely appeared. Perchance this is a post-epiphany text. According to Matthew, Jesus has not performed any miracle. At this point Jesus has not even spoken. A voice from heaven gives utterance. Jesus is silent. There is no record of a parable, prayer or axiom. He has just “shown up.”
While the Gospel of Matthew avers that Jesus will save, thus far in the narrative, he has nothing to show for it. It does not mean that Jesus will not do anything. The birth story is clear that Jesus has much on this place. He will deliver people from their sins (Matthew 2:21). As this text nudges the reader to think of their own baptism experience, it is also a passage about moderation. It provides handles on temperament in one’s approach to ministry:
- Embrace people. Jesus is Jesus. He really does need John to baptize him. John and Jesus recognize this. However, in order to align and “fulfill all righteousness,” Matthew’s Jesus does things in order. As preachers and leaders, we have to humble ourselves enough to allow those we serve to also equip and nurture us. One of our tasks is provide the space for people to be whom God has called them to be.
- Embrace a proper way. Jesus could have baptized John. However, by allowing John to take the lead, Jesus acquiesces to what John is called to do. He surrenders to John’s work in the wilderness. Jesus honors the ministry of one person and does not discount its significance or viability. Jesus does not circumvent the process so that he can get to his mission. He honors the path that must go to John and baptism in the wilderness.
- Embrace the place of preparation. Jesus is in the wilderness. This is a place where the outcasts, those on the margins, and the decentered reside. Since his birth Jesus has learned to live on the run. His foray into ministry is no different. Although he received treasured gifts from the Persian elite as a child, his task as an adult would be to challenge classism and imperial regimes. What better way to accompany the left-out, then to dwell where they dwell.
- Embrace living with a little pleasure. John baptizes Jesus in the Galilean wilderness. There is no trumpet sound. No archangels herald this watershed moment. The Spirit of God descends, and a voice affirms that all is well. God is pleased. Our world demonstrates that excess is a sign of success, and numerous tweets speak in calliopean fashion. However, Matthew’s baptism narrative contends a little moderation is good for ministerial fashioning. God is content with what Jesus is about to do.
God is not ecstatic. The Creator is not jumping for joy. The Divine is merely pleased. The Holy One simply says, “Very well.” This is my Beloved in whom I am well pleased.