Thursday, November 7, 2019

Gospel of Matthew: Come to the desert to be baptized in the Jordan

Matthew 3:1-2

I'm going to back up for a second to look at just a little of the deep symbolism of John the Baptist's ministry. His garb screamed prophet to the Jewish people and that connection is easy to see if you look back over the different Old Testament prophets.

But I never thought about how the place he chose for baptism would have elevated the event. No wonder everyone is hurrying to see him.

St. John the Baptist Preaching, c. 1665, by Mattia Preti
John the Baptist's ministry was based at the Jordan river, probably on the southern stretch of the river that flows by the Judean desert, just before emptying into the Dead Sea. To get there, crowds from Jerusalem would travel about twenty miles through rugged terrain in a hot, barren wilderness. One might wonder why John would base his movement out there.

To appreciate John's strategy in choosing this location we first must understand that the Jordan was more than a river for the Jews: it was a powerful symbol of hope and new life. God did great things at the Jordan. He healed Naaman the Syrian of his leprosy there (2 Kings 5:1-14), and he took the prophet Elijah up to heaven in a fiery chariot at the Jordan (2 Kings 2:1-11). Most of all God led the Israelites across the Jordan River at the end of their forty-year journey from Egypt to the promised land. Thus the Jordan represented the climax of the exodus story and the fulfillment of God's plan to bring Israel to the land of Canaan.

The Judean desert carried rich symbolism for the Jews. It too recalled the exodus story, for it was in a desert that Israel became established as God's covenant people as they journeyed to the promised land. ... The prophets foretold that God would lead his people back to the desert to renew his covenant with them. Hosea, for example, described how God would lovingly draw his sinful people back to him like a husband wooing an unfaithful wife. (Hosea 2:16, 20-21)

This background helps explain why John called the people to come out to the desert and be baptized in the Jordan. Such a summons would have signaled that everything the Jews had been longing for was about to be fulfilled. In this particular place, the ritual of baptism was a powerful symbolic action. In calling the people to journey into the wilderness to step into the Jordan River to be baptized, and to reenter the promised land, John was summoning them to reenact the exodus story. ...
Quote is from Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture. This series first ran in 2008. I'm refreshing it as I go.

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