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 ax 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 this word in their texts, Matthew puts the word on John’s lips. 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, being used thirty one times – 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 the so-called 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!
Sport psychology has something to teach us in our approach to interpreting the Gospel. Although there is not one single definition of what sport psychology is about, all approaches focus on improving performance, achieving goals, enabling you to achieve what is on offer given your talent. The following description is typical: “Sports psychology is essentially the study of how the mind affects physical activity and athletic performance. According to the American Psychological Association, ‘sports psychology addresses the interactions between psychology and sport performance, including the psychological aspects of optimal athletic performance” (http://www.whatispsychology.biz/about-sports-psychology-definition). A sport psychologist will say to the would-be athlete: “If you want to achieve what is on offer in your chosen sport, change your mindset, develop different expectations, check your assumptions etc.”
In today’s Gospel – Mathew 3:1-12 – we hear John the Baptist giving that message to anyone who is willing to listen. What is on offer in this instance, however, far exceeds, any sporting achievement! “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It is probably fair to say that, too often, this statement is heard more as threat than promise. If we do hear it as threat, it may prevent us opening ourselves to what is on offer. It may tie us in knots, diminishing – even destroying – our ability to hear the Good News of the Kingdom. The alternative is to hear John the Baptist’s proclamation as invitation and promise.
Apply the fundamental aim of the sport psychologist and ask the question: What is the best way for me to think and act so that I may be open to the Good News and receive what is on offer here?
The word “repent” is a good place to start. Understanding that word, in its original meaning, will help us to begin untying some of the knots that fear might have tied in us. Whereas Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3 mention this word in their texts, Matthew actually has John say it. Indeed, he also has Jesus say it in 4:17. “Repent” occurs three times in this passage alone 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”. In those days, “mind” referred to the deepest disposition of the person towards people, events and things. One commentator 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, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 51). In other words, if you want what is on offer – the kingdom of God! – do what is necessary to receive the gift.
So what needs to change in me so that I can receive what is on offer? What is the metanoia or reorientation that is needed in my life? Perhaps there is one fundamental change that is needed in us all: The Kingdom comes as gift not conquest. The coming of the Kingdom is a work of grace not mastery. What does that mean for me?