Mosaic of angel holding scroll reading St. Matthew

Studying Matthew 3 1-12

We are studying Matthew 3:1-12 for Sunday, December 27 – studying, that is, when we are not preoccupied with whatever Christmas plans we are carrying out this week. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few belated notes on our text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Our text this week is the next episode from the opening of Matthew’s gospel (see here and here and here). It’s still introductory material, but it’s much closer to the beginning of the story of Jesus’s ministry, which begins with Jesus’s baptism by John in the Jordan, and which forms the core of Matthew’s story.

This seems like a very familiar passage of scripture, maybe because it is the lectionary’s gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Advent in Year A.

Or maybe it’s because the text contains the “striking visual” of the figure of John the Baptist out in the wilderness wearing camel hair with a leather belt and eating locusts and wild honey. We might only need to hear that once for it to stick in our heads.

The familiarity might keep us from noticing how strange John the Baptist probably ought to seem to us, or from recognizing that we could reasonably ask questions like “Did people do a lot of baptizing in those days?” and “What did people think this baptism meant then?” and “Why was John the Baptist doing this, anyway – what was he actually trying to do?” and “Why does it matter what he wore and what he ate??”

John the Baptist must be important, because all the gospels feature him. But we may understand less than we think we do about why he’s important. Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will identify John with the prophet Elijah, who is supposed to return to the world as a precursor of the Messiah (Matthew 11:14, Matthew 17:10-12). At least, that’s how the disciples understand it. The identification of John with Elijah seems like one of the proof points establishing Jesus’s own identity as the Messiah. John seems to understand himself that way, too, as Matthew tells it. That is, he seems to understand himself as the precursor of “the one who is coming.” But then, he seems less than entirely certain that Jesus is that one (Matthew 11:2-6).

A lot hinges, in Matthew’s gospel, as well as in real life, on who and what people decide to pay attention to, on who and what people decide to trust.

[Bible Odyssey has a couple of helpful articles, one by Robert Cargill on baptism and its relationship to Second Temple practices, another by Ian Werrett on John the Baptist. There’s also an article in Bulletin for Biblical Research by Colin Brown on What John the Baptist was Doing; the article itself is not universally accessible, but the abstract is, and offers a really interesting suggestion about how John’s baptism of repentance might have related to religious life in John’s own time.]
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CLOSER READING: Our text this week introduces and describes John the Baptist, positions him as “the voice crying in the wilderness” before the redeemer, and fills in the picture of John the Baptist with his rebuke of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and a summary of the content of his teaching.

[After this scene setting, the verses that follow (13-17) will describe Jesus’s baptism. Not coincidentally, those verses are the lectionary’s gospel reading for the Baptism of the Lord in Year A.]

Matthew 3:1 opens with “In those days.” If we’ve just finished reading Matthew 2, we might be forgiven for thinking John appeared in the wilderness when Jesus was a small child. As we read further, we’ll revise that thought – we’ve clearly jumped ahead in time if Jesus can appear in the story as an adult.

John offers the nearness of the kingdom of heaven as the reason for repentance. We might want to think about why or when someone say “turn around, quick, it’s right over here …” – which is what John seems to be saying.

Verse 3 is one of Matthew’s MANY prophetic fulfillment announcements. In this case, he refers to Isaiah 40:3, more or less. The word translated “paths” here would be used for main-traveled roads, “beaten” paths.

I would really like to understand more than I do about the significance of what John wears and eats. Surely someone has done work on this.

The word translated “confessing” in verse 6 is a Greek word that literally sounds like “speak the same” or “use the same words.” “Speaking the same words” seems like a good fit with the sense of our word “confession” that explains why “the Book of Confessions” is a book full of statements of faith. Here, though, it’s used in what is the more familiar sense, for us, of admitting to something we’ve done wrong. Of course, if we’re Presbyterians, the “confession of sin” we make every week in gathered worship combines both of those senses of the term.

Verses 7-10 contain a rebuke to “Pharisees and Sadducees.” Our curriculum suggests these characters are “emissaries” on a fact-finding mission (see John 1:19-28). Matthew leaves it ambiguous enough, literally “coming to his baptism,” that they might simply be onlookers. Still, as Matthew tells it, they might also have been coming to take part in the latest religious happening.

Clearly, John’s not impressed with their piety credentials, and his message is uncompromisingly behavioral: “Do or make fruits worthy of repentance.” In other words, show by what you do that you have really turned around. “Walk the walk,” we would say.

Our curriculum makes the statement that the Pharisees and Sadducees thought “no repentance should be needed because obedience could and should be perfect.” This seems questionable to me; I’d need to see some more authoritative source before I’d accept that, especially in light of the fact that the Day of Atonement, which calls for repentance as a regular practice, was one of the annual pilgrimage festivals in the time of the Second Temple. Furthermore, we ought to know that holding a theology that recognizes a perennial need for human repentance doesn’t keep people from feeling they’re actually basically good enough in God’s eyes not to need to repent much themselves. We probably go to church with people like that. We might even be people like that ourselves.

In other words, I think we always ought to be suspicious of blanket Christian statements about “the Pharisees and Sadducees” that don’t come with footnotes. Christians have historically been eager to find stark religious contrasts between “our” religion and “theirs,” and those findings have more often than not been wrong.

Our study Bible points out that verse 9 is a play on words in Aramaic (and Hebrew), because the word for “stones” and the word for “sons” or “children” sound very similar.

Verses 11-12 suggest that what’s at stake in John’s ministry, and what’s on John’s mind, is purity and purification. Water, fire, Holy Spirit – all agents of purification.

What it takes to purify something depends a lot on the substance. Bleach, for instance, is a great disinfectant – unless we want to disinfect some brightly colored bath towels. Water washes away dirt, but if we need to refine metal out of ore, we’ll need a different process. The purification process we use may depend on what we want to survive it. We could think about the implications of all that, both literal and metaphorical, for a long time.
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Mosaic of angel holding scroll reading St. Matthew

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