First Sunday in Lent

They were ready to change to prepare for God’s reign

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Commentary on Mark 1:9-15

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Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:9-11)

It is problematic to compare Jesus’ baptism with that of the people coming to be baptized by John. This action betrays a relationship of superior to inferior, of teacher to disciple, which places Jesus in a subordinate relationship with John.

The other problem is the nature of the baptism as repentance for the forgiveness of sins. What did Jesus have to repent of? What sins did he have to confess? It has been suggested that the people coming to be baptized were simply expressing their readiness for the promised kingdom of God. Their repentance and confession pertain to social sins, not innate, personal ones, for which they had a recourse through the Temple rites. It was an admission that they had somehow participated in a system of oppression and that now they were ready to change in preparation for God’s reign.

The baptism, then, was a visible sign of that attitude. If that was the case, then it was natural for Jesus to identify with this popular movement and do the same.1 Granted that this makes some people uncomfortable, it is the only honest reading that the text affords.

Herman Waetjen has suggested that Jesus was baptized into the Jordan (eis), rather than in the Jordan (en), as happened to the people in verse 5.2 The Jews from Judea and Jerusalem were not submerged in the river; that is, they did not submit to the full depth of John’s baptism. But Jesus did. He completely renounced the old order3 and proved to be a more genuine disciple than the others.

The tearing of the heavens (sjizomenous) parallels the tearing of the veil in Mark 15. The Gospel writer is using it to show that the Spirit is available again. The heavens have been ripped open. In 15:38 it is the veil that separated the people from God’s presence which is torn apart (esjizthe). Now the way to God is open for everyone. The purpose of these two verses was to call attention to what was included between them: Jesus’ ministry. The first, 1:10, signals the beginning; the second, 15:38, its end.

In the baptism, the Spirit comes from above and goes into (eis) Jesus, filling him. That is why the Baptist says that the one coming after him “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:8). He is not a prophet temporarily anointed with the Spirit but rather one in which the Spirit lives permanently. That makes a huge difference between a traditional prophet and Jesus, something corroborated by the voice from heaven in verse 11.

In Mark’s narrative, the voice from heaven fulfills the purpose of identifying Jesus’ origin: he might come from Nazareth, a place of low honor, but he is God’s son. Jesus’ honor is ascribed; that is, granted by someone in a powerful and honorable position, in this case the God of Israel. The divine voice makes an astonishing affirmation: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” It is a composite citation from Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1, among other passages, and it comes for Jesus’ and the readers’ benefit, not for those witnessing the event (compare it with Matthew 3:17).

The expression “my Son, the Beloved” does not have a capital initial, as in most modern translations, since the original Greek was all written in capital letters. It denotes the translator’s bias, who believes Jesus to be the Son of God in an ontological sense. But the idea here is more relational. Jesus is the favorite son of God, the one God has chosen to accomplish the task that the evangelist is about to tell the reader. It shows God’s partiality and preference. It also shows some rivalry with his teacher John. It basically says that God has chosen the disciple over the teacher!

The Jewish people believed that prophecy had ceased with the last prophets but that it would be restored at the end-times (Malachi 4:5-6). The heavens had “closed,” as it were, and there was no direct communication from God to humankind anymore. That Mark says that the heavens were torn apart is a daring affirmation. That the Spirit descended and entered into Jesus is even more so. Here we have an absolutely revolutionary claim: the God of Israel is speaking again and has chosen to do it through a humble peasant from Galilee!

Jesus’ testing in the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13)

Like Israel—God’s son in the past—Jesus is tested in the wilderness. The number 40 could be symbolic of the 40 years Israel spent in the Sinai desert or just indicate a long period of time. Given the citation from the Hebrew Bible in Mark 1:2-3, the first possibility is more plausible. His testing may have served as a preparation and empowerment for ministry. That Jesus was assisted by angels resembles a similar situation in the life of Elijah (see 1 Kings 19:5-8). The tradition behind Luke’s Gospel says that angels attended to him while praying at the Mount of Olives (see also Luke 22:43), where Jesus was tested in preparation for the final stage of his ministry.

Mark does not tell us the outcome of the testing, but it is clear that he understands it as the decisive encounter with Satan that will explain Jesus’ exorcisms in the rest of the Gospel: “the stronger one has confronted the prince of demons, and is plundering his house” (Mark 3:22-27).4

Contextualizing the text

God invites people to see the world from the margins of society. Every liberating movement has started like that, including the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the more recent ones such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo.

We should accept our responsibility in social sins such as racism, homophobia, classism, etc., from which we need to repent.

The relationship between prayer and praxis needs to be clarified. Prayer can never replace praxis nor can praxis replace prayer. They are two sides of the same coin. Jesus is the best example.

Notes

  1. Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997), 44.
  2. Herman Waetjen, A Re-ordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1989), 68.
  3. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995), 129.
  4. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark, 51.