Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:1-12 – NRSV).
See parallel passages in Mark 1:2-8 and Luke 3:1-20. Matthew is clearly dependent on Mark in his text.
Matthew has John say the words that he also has Jesus say later: “From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 4:17). The context for John’s preaching – and the life and teaching of Jesus – is thus the coming of the kingdom.
Daniel Harrington SJ notes Josephus’ description of John the Baptist: “‘He was a good man and had exhorted the Jews to lead righteous lives, to practice justice toward their fellows and piety toward God, and so doing to join in baptism. In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by right behavior’ (Ant. 18:117)” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 52).
Harrington continues: “Josephus’ picture of John the Baptist is basically positive. John appears as a Jewish preacher whose message concerns justice toward others and piety toward God. John’s ritual of baptism is described in a somewhat tortuous way, suggesting that Josephus was trying to avoid misunderstandings and misinterpretations. He insists that justice and piety were preliminaries to John’s baptism and that the baptism of the body symbolized the cleansing of the soul. …… Acts contains two stories (18:24–28; 19:1–7) that indicate the survival of John’s movement after the death of its founder (and of Jesus). Apollos of Alexandria is said to have known “only the baptism of John” (Acts 18:25). The disciples at Ephesus had been baptized only “into John’s baptism” (Acts 19:3). Such people need instruction from followers of Jesus and in the case of John’s disciples at Ephesus baptism in the name of the Lord Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 19:5–6).
“The evidence about John the Baptist from Josephus and the New Testament indicates that in Matt 3:1–6 we are being introduced to an important historical character. His preaching and baptism attracted crowds of people, including Jesus. It was so popular that Herod Antipas feared an uprising and had John first imprisoned and then executed. John’s reputation was such that the early Christians took pains to differentiate him from Jesus and to underline John’s inferiority. The movement that he began survived his death and spread at least to Ephesus in Asia Minor.
“When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the late 1940s and the first documents were published, many writers argued that John the Baptist had been a member of the group that produced those scrolls. This identification was suggested by several factors: the general location (the Judean wilderness) in which John was active and the Qumran community lived, their ascetic lifestyles, their common interest in the coming kingdom of God, and their ritual uses of water (see below on Matt 3:11–12). While John could have been a member of the Qumran community at some point (see Luke 1:80: ‘and he was in the wilderness until the day of his manifestation’), one should be cautious about jumping to conclusions on this matter. On the one hand, there seem to have been many religious groups and movements in the general area of the Judean wilderness. John need not have been an Essene or a member of the Qumran community. On the other hand, John differed from the Qumran community on some matters, especially about the significance of the baptism that he proclaimed.
“The message to Matthew’s community would have been the standard early Christian message about John the Baptist. The text supplied them with basic information about a relation to Jesus and his preaching (they say the same thing), and suggested an ultimate relationship of inferior (‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness’), and superior (‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths’) between John and Jesus.
“In the Church year John the Baptist is most prominent in the Advent season. The role of ‘precursor’ attributed to him by way of Isa 40:3 gets particular emphasis. Attention to the Gospel tradition and to Josephus, however, suggests that his relationship to Jesus was not so simple and untroubled as the ‘precursor’ theme allows. Without denying this traditional role it may be useful to highlight the tensions about John’s popularity and the survival of his movement so that Christians today can appreciate what was at stake in assigning the role of precursor to John the Baptist” (Daniel J Harrington SJ, op cit, 53 & 54-55).
the wilderness of Judea: Probably an area east of Jerusalem, sloping down to the Dead Sea.
repent: Whereas Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3 mention repentance in their texts in regard to John’s preaching, Matthew is more direct. He puts the word on John’s lips: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And it is a crucial word. It appears three times in this passage and a further six times elsewhere in the Gospel. The Greek imperative here is metanoeite from the verb metanoeō. The Greek literally means “change one’s mind”. The English word “repent” hardly does justice to the Greek expression. Harrington writes: “The biblical idea of repentance involves a willingness to turn one’s life around in the sense of a complete reorientation” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 51).
the kingdom of heaven: References to “the kingdom” are numerous in Matthew, though to call it “the kingdom of heaven” is a typical expression of his – see 4:17, 5:4, 10, 19 (twice) & 20; 7:21; 8:11; 10:7; 11:11 (twice); 13:10, 24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47 & 51; 16:19; 18:1, 3, 4 & 23; 19:12, 14 & 23; 20:1; 22:2; 23:13; 25:1. On five occasions he uses the expression, “the kingdom of God” – see 6:33, 12:28, 19:24 and 21:31 & 43. On several other occasions the word “kingdom” is used on its own.
the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Isaiah 40:3 (“A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God”) is from Second Isaiah which carries a comforting message for the people returning from the Babylonian Exile (538 BCE). Here, the “one calling” is John and “the Lord” is Jesus.
camel’s hair and a leather belt: We are reminded of the prophet Elijah – see 2 Kgs 1:8. Harrington observes: “This apparel may have marked John simply as a prophetic figure in general. But given the interest in John as a ‘new Elijah’ (see Mal 3:1; 4:5) this outfit may have been intended more specifically with reference to Elijah (see Matt 11:7–15; 17:10–13)” (Daniel J Harrington, SJ, op cit, 51).
being baptized: From the Greek verb baptizō meaning “dip in/under water” or “immerse”. This ritual signifies the intention to turn one’s life around (metanoeite).
brood of vipers: The Pharisees and Sadducees are explicitly named here. However, Matthew puts similar words on the lips of Jesus concerning the religious authorities, especially the Pharisees – see 25:13-36, with its repeated “woes” to these religious authorities for their hypocrisy. Claiming Abraham as their father is not going to save them either!
Reflection – What makes us “God’s people”?
In today’s Gospel – Matthew 3:1-12 – John “appears in the wilderness of Judea” proclaiming the coming of “the kingdom of heaven”. The text is loaded both with references to Israel’s history and implications for the Church today. Reflection on just one theme – that of the wilderness – can open the door to some deep truths of our faith.
The wilderness is a core symbol in the history of Israel. It was the way of deliverance especially chosen by God. Significantly enough, the wilderness was not the shortest way (Exodus 13:17). The important thing is that it was God’s way. “They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night” (Exodus 13:20-21). In the wilderness, God alone has the map. It is God’s way that the people must follow in order to find their identity.
This central truth of Israel’s history can be summed up: “It is in the Sinai desert that the Hebrews are to adore God. There they receive the Law and receive the covenant that made these wanderers a true people of God … God wished his people to be born in the desert” (Charles Thomas and Xavier Léon-Dufour, “Desert” in Dictionary of Biblical Theology, edited by Xavier Léon-Dufour, London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1972, 99). It should be noted, however, that the wilderness/desert is not their final destination: “(God) promised them a land and so made the desert sojourn a privileged but provisional period” (Ibid).
Matthew has John the Baptist simultaneously in the wilderness and baptizing people in the Jordan River. It is fair to say that the reference to the wilderness is more theological than geographical. Yes, John spent time in the wilderness. But here the reference to the wilderness serves to situate John and the happenings around him, in God’s unfolding plan. The next phase of the journey, begun long ago, is emerging.
Amidst God’s words of sadness and regret at the way the people have behaved, the Prophet Hosea indicates the place of the wilderness in Israel’s history: “Therefore, I will now allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:14). The wilderness has not been left behind. It will always remain the place that the people continue to become God’s people.
Vatican II’s document on the Church – Lumen Gentium (November 21 1964) – should be read in this light. The first chapter is “The Mystery of the Church”. The following chapter is “The People of God”. This second chapter represents a significant shift in the Church’s self-understanding. The shift is from thinking of the Church primarily as a hierarchical, juridical organization towards thinking of the Church primarily as a “people” journeying through history under the guidance of God.
In what way do you think this makes a difference?