THE BAPTISM OF THE LORD Mt 3: 13-17
by Father Mike Stubbs
Parents present their babies for baptism for a variety of reasons. Hopefully, it is because they want their babies to share in the Catholic faith, to become practicing members of the church.
On the other hand, there are other motives at work. Sometimes the parents primarily want to please the grandparents. Or maybe the parents look upon baptism as a good luck charm for infants, a blessing for them at the beginning of their lives.
Two thousand years ago, when John the Baptist was performing baptisms in the Jordan River, people undoubtedly also approached him about baptism for various reasons. Some individuals honestly wished to repent from sin and saw their baptism as a sign of that repentance. Others were hypocrites and only wanted to go through the ceremony for show, to impress other people.
But Jesus approaches John for baptism with a completely different purpose in mind.
All three synoptic Gospels provide an account of Jesus’ baptism by John. But Matthew’s Gospel takes a different approach to Jesus’ baptism than the Gospels of Mark and Luke.
This Sunday, as we celebrate the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the Gospel reading will use the account from Matthew’s Gospel, 3:13-17. Matthew emphasizes that Jesus’ baptism takes place primarily for the benefit of others — ultimately, for the entire human race — and not to benefit him personally.
That is why Matthew’s Gospel alone includes the dialogue between Jesus and John the Baptist, in which Jesus insists that he be baptized: “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, go along with it, so that we can fulfill God’s plan.
Even though baptism will not benefit Jesus personally, it will benefit the crowd that witnesses it. It will benefit those who will learn about it through the Gospels. It will benefit us.
Matthew’s Gospel also puts a different twist on the words spoken by the voice from heaven. In both Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels, the words are spoken directly to Jesus: “You are my beloved Son.” It is not even clear that the crowd hears the words at all. Perhaps they are audible to Jesus only.
On the other hand, in Matthew’s Gospel, the words are spoken about Jesus, not to him: “This is my beloved Son.” That suggests that the crowd can hear the words — in fact, that the words are being spoken for the crowd’s benefit. They are not telling Jesus anything new. He does not need to hear them, just as he does not need to be baptized. It is all for the sake of the crowd; ultimately, for our sake as well. That is Jesus’ mission.
Jesus did not need to be baptized, but we do. Jesus did not need to be told that he was the Son of God, but we need to be told that God claims us as sons and daughters. That is what happens when we are baptized. And that is why Jesus was baptized — to set an example for us.
Father Stubbs is the pastor of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Lansing.