Read Luke 3:1-22
One of the dangers we face when we engage with scripture regularly, when we commit to community-based religious life in all its facets, is this: we gain knowledge that sometimes convinces us of things that are not there. We become so familiar with the general contours of the story that we often think we have seen or heard something that doesn’t exist. At least not in the way we are reckoning. Did you catch the huge event that is absent in Luke 3? Go ahead; read it again if you need. I can wait.
There’s not actually a baptism, is there? There’s the reporting that the baptism is completed, but we do not see it in the present tense. We do not have Jesus and John squaring off in the river, talking about the unfolding of God’s plan between a prophet and a messiah; Luke makes them cousins, has John leaping in the womb when brought into Jesus’s in utero presence. From a purely storytelling perspective, Luke misses a huge chance to hit us in the feels, to demonstrate God’s love through the passionate humility of both John and Jesus. Alas, Luke takes us to shore and reports God’s vital words, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” with nary a Jesus-dunking to be found.
I don’t know about you but I’m kinda bummed out regarding this narrative of Jesus’ baptism. Give me the Gospel of Mark, with John the Baptizer saying the words to Jesus’ face, and Jesus refusing to denigrate others in order to elevate himself. God makes us who we are, Jesus seems to say, so let us honor one another and the fact that we’ve been brought together.
Certain scholars, and I’ll count myself among them, believe that Luke omits John’s explicit baptizing of Jesus because it is what Thomas Aquinas will later call a scandal. To be sure, scandal has very specific and complicated definitions. But in essence it is this: an external act or the omission of an external act that itself is evil, and is either intentionally or unintentionally the cause of another’s sin. To put it more simply, an act that is initiated by you and causes others to engage in sin.
Now, how could John baptizing Jesus be seen as a scandal? Well, we first have to keep in mind that Luke was writing well before Aquinas would formulate most of what is believed about scandal, so a one-to-one comparison would be irresponsible historically. That’s not what I’m doing. With that said, I find it reasonable to believe that Luke’s theology cannot support John baptizing Jesus. Some of that probably has to do with the fact that Luke, through the gospel bearing the same name and the Book of Acts, is retelling the whole history of Israel in light of the Christ. The Book of Acts moves God from Jerusalem to Rome, and through the text we can see the first fissures of the eventual separation between Judaism and Christianity. Luke is dealing in absolutes that have to justify major shifts in understanding Yahweh.
Let’d look at these subtle, but important changes: In the gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus demands to be baptized by John, who complies only after vehement protestation. For Luke, the reality of this would mean that, even for just a moment, Jesus is unable to do something for himself. We should notice that Luke puts the act in the passive voice: Jesus was baptized, and we don’t know by whom. Luke probably didn’t want the awkward description of Jesus dunking himself in the water—like Napoleon crowning himself—and he couldn’t eliminate the scene altogether because it is a vital part of the story. It creates a quandary, but again we return to the question: how is this a scandal?
For Luke, there can be no higher authority than Jesus. While Luke presents Jesus with more humanness than does the author of John, the final canonical gospel to be written, there is high Christology in Luke. Jesus most certainly is God, and God don’t get dunked in the Jordan, even by a prophet. We can also see in Luke’s writings that there is great concern about the structure of the community; while Mark is heavily eschatological (having to do with the end times), Luke is more ecclesial (centered on the Church). Luke’s gospel reflects a maturing Christianity that is sorting out structures that will shape the faith for two millennia. If during Jesus’ lifetime there can be someone raised to a position that he or she, if even for a moment, has authority over Jesus or is required to fulfill part of the divine plan, Jesus is not fully God.
As the Church was wrestling with authority issues, it is not outrageous to think that Luke—or more probably, the community that gathered around the theology and stories recorded in Luke-Acts—changed the baptism story to support the hierarchical structure of the Church that was emerging. There are human agents like John, and divine agents like Jesus. Never between shall two meet. But why is this important?
If no one can rival Jesus, no one can rival the church that bears his name. To be clear, Luke is not Matthew, who centers power in Peter. This is not an argument for the Pope; however, it is undeniable that the sort of ecclesial structure represented in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts leads directly to centralized leadership within the Body of Christ.
Therefore, the baptism narrative is about the nature of power and in whom it is vested.
Protestants largely maintain that no single individual should be able to rule over the Church universal; we don’t recognize the authority of the Pope or the Patriarch of Constantinople. To be sure, we have created our own Golems, our own mythical creatures from Judaism. For we Christians the Golem seems to be distributions of power. I think this sometimes is what puts people off about religion, these squabbles about who has authority and who does not.
Luke has done us a disservice, if I may be so bold, in rendering the baptism in this way. The John of Luke is more powerful and passionate than anywhere else; perhaps what we lose in getting to see him baptize Jesus we gain in hearing from him in the water. John is setting forth the foundational aspects of understanding God’s work in him and Jesus. The act of baptism is important, but only if the external—the act itself—is matched by the internal—the conviction to act out of the faith which baptism signals. The content of the required faith is telling: John beseeches people to go into their closets and give surplus garments to those in surfeit. He calls for ethical business practices. His teachings are so threatening to the powers that be, Herod has to shut John up by shutting him up in prison.
Don’t you want to see this John baptize Jesus? Because there is something almost dangerous about the idea that Jesus did not need anyone. We can fall down the theological rabbit hole regarding Trinitarian theology, and believe me as an adjunct theology professor who often teaches Christian history, I love those discussions. But the only theology that matters is the theology that helps us in the nitty-gritty of life. Theology that helps us know something fundamental about God that remains true even in the harshest of times. I want John to baptize Jesus because it is further evidence that God is intimately involved in our lives. It communicates that God sends people to help us, just like he did with Jesus and John. It is evidence that the power is with us, too. Christianity is not just about waiting for Jesus to do it for us, or holding on until the Parousia, the Second Coming. It is about a radically giving way of life.
How we respond to scripture can reveal a lot about us. Five years ago, I don’t think I would even have noticed that John doesn’t technically baptize Jesus; and if I did, I don’t think it would have mattered. I imagine you’ve had those experiences, too. As you continue on your journey with God, questions and needs rise and fall. Today, as one tasked with being a preacher and teacher of the Word, all I can offer is this: none of us are ever above being acted upon by others for the betterment of ourselves and the building of God’s kin-dom. And I personally can’t see Jesus doing anything but arguing with John and saying, “No, friend. You’re not unworthy. Let’s do this together because it is what God wants.”
I have never lived during a time in which people hear each other less and castigate each other more. At a time in which the dynamics of power are so frightening and costly. I still hold firm to the belief that people can be loving and reasonable; that we can work on difficult issues while disagreeing vehemently, but never lose sight of one another’s intrinsic humanity. Jesus’ baptism is a sign that even he got by with a little help from his friends, and that there is no one unworthy of being used by God, if only we humble ourselves and don’t seek power for our own glory. Amen.