Year A – Epiphany 1/Baptism of Jesus

Isaiah 42: 1-9

1. Discussion

Today’s reading from Isaiah comes from a section of the text that is identified by some scholars as the work of “Second Isaiah”, a prophet said to be active during the period in which the Hebrew people were in exile in Babylon. This section of the text is an extensive prophecy of hope, one that declares to the Exiles that although the judgement of God has fallen upon them for their sins, nonetheless, God has already ordained that they will be redeemed – God’s love and faithfulness is such that God will not allow the covenant with Israel to become void.

Today’s passage speaks of a “Servant”, of One who is sent by God to be both the embodiment of God’s love as well as the agent of God’s redemptive purpose. This “Servant” is no mere prophet or messenger of God, but is someone intimately associated with God – the “Servant” is one in whom God “delights”.  There is a suggestion here of parental affection – of the “child” in whom the parent’s hopes and joys are brought to fruition. Or perhaps it is the “delight” that a lover feels for their Beloved; certainly, the erotic imagery of lovers as symbolic of the relationship between God and the people occurs within Scripture, and was an inspiration for later medieval mystics.

Verses 2-4 describe some of the characteristics of this “Servant”, characteristics that serve to identify how this One will be different, both from the norms and standards of “prophets” and “messiahs”, as well as from the human expectations of what this “Servant” will do. The “Servant” will not, for example, be like some hawker on the street, peddling their spiritual wares or attempting to attract an audience from whom they can develop a group of followers. The “Servant” will not be an authoritarian figure, like so many kings and military leaders were; his authority will not be such as grinds the weak underfoot, but which instead serves the cause of justice – even when that cause provokes the powerful or upsets their privileges. The “Servant” will not be intimidated or silenced by the powers-that-be, but will serve instead the longing of the whole earth for justice – a longing that extends to the coastlands, to the very edges of the habitable earth.

Verse 5 invokes the sovereignty of God as Lord and creator. Thus says the LORD is a declaration of God’s prerogative to issue commands and judgements; the following passage describes that prerogative in terms of creation itself, as the origin of all that is and the animating spirit that gives birth to all life. This is followed in verses 6-7 by a commissioning, as it were, the command and authority which God has vested in the “Servant”. Even as God has brought forth creation, so God has called the One who will embody God’s justice and faithfulness to covenant. The “Servant” will be both covenant with Israel and a light to the whole world, that those who dwell in the “blindness” of human sin will have their “sight” opened to the possibility of relationship with God. The “Servant” will be the One who sets free all those imprisoned by fear and guilt, that they might respond to the call to accountability without the dread of humiliation and disgrace. The justice which the “Servant” embodies and serves is not the vengeful “justice” of condemnation, but the liberating justice of repentance and reconciliation.

Verses 8-9 conclude today’s passage with a re-statement of God’s sovereignty: the name of God encapsulates the glory of God; it belongs solely to God, and is not to be located in idols – that is to say, in either the anthropomorphic images which humans worship instead of God, nor in the conceits which humans elevate into the place of God.  But God’s sovereignty is not an unending stasis, preserving an eternal status quo: rather, God acts decisively to change the course of human destiny, to overcome the power of sin and alienation in order to gather humanity into the orbit of God’s grace. Thus, things change because God acts to bring about change. The eternity of God is not the equivalent of unending sameness – and so what appears inevitable and necessary becomes contingent and temporary.

Today’s reading from Isaiah is a message of hope to a people lost in the hopelessness of seemingly unending exile. Whether or not the author of this passage from Isaiah envisaged the “Servant” as an individual who would lead the people out of exile – some scholars argue that this “Servant” is the Persian king Cyrus, who would overthrow the Babylonians and allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem – or a messianic figure who would appear at a later stage in history to fulfil God’s cosmic purpose, is unclear. Certainly, we should refrain from simplistically reading into this passage and the figure of the “Servant” a retrospective insistence that Isaiah was “necessarily” talking about Jesus of Nazareth. Clearly, however, the “Servant” is someone who is radically different from those who have come before: intimately associated with God, vested with God’s authority to fulfil God’s redemptive purpose, the embodiment and enactor of covenant with Israel who is also a light to the world. The “Servant” is the One who changes everything, and who is God’s decisive intervention in the life of the world to ensure that sin and injustice do not have the final say in human destiny.

2. Reflection

One of the ways in which modernity’s construction of work and economy induces both despair and a sense of servile helplessness is by giving the impression that it is both inevitable and permanent. Certainly, the advocates for corporatist capitalism argue that the primacy of waged labour in human life is “necessary” for human “prosperity”, and not only dismiss as “unviable” any suggested alternatives, but the prospect of such alternatives. The neoliberal organisation of work and economy is the “way it is meant to be”. This in turn gives rise to the concept of the “wage slave”: we are all in bondage to a system we recognise as dehumanising, but despair of there being any other way in which human work and economy might be organised.

Humans in modernity long for a “messiah” – not necessarily a religious or political figure, but some “authority” who might set them free from the confinements of corporatist capitalism. Thus it is that many a “guru” of the “self help” movement has arisen to tell people how they can better manage their lives, better maintain their “work-life balance”, or even “get what they want” out of life. The myth of the autonomous individual has essentially made each person their own messiah – but our “individuality” is dictated to us by the self-help “gurus”, by online “influencers”, or by a whole host of celebrities and public figures.

Of course, “false prophets” have always been a feature of human life. There is a scene in the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian in which the main character – Brian, a rather hapless figure who happens to have the (mis)fortune of sharing a birthday with Jesus – is being chased by Roman soldiers, and accidently ends up in a street where a whole host of these “prophets” are bellowing their prognostications at passers-by. Each of these “prophets” is strangely attired and has the look of the “fanatic” about them. In order to escape his pursuers, Brian pretends to be one of these prophets; and entirely inadvertently, gathers a following of people eager to learn from his “wisdom”. In vain does Brian urge them to think for themselves; they all bellow back at him, “Yes, we are all individuals!” and then hang on his every word, desperate to be told what to do.

The deep irony of a film like Life of Brian is that while it pointedly critiques the kind of compliant mindset that enables charismatic individuals to set up cults of personality, it is also a profound expression of modernity’s myth of the autonomous individual. Brian’s assertions that we have to “think for ourselves” and “work it out for ourselves” articulate modernity’s modelling of human life as essentially little more than the experience of the individual. There are no “metanarratives” or overarching truths: there are just those “truths” we can establish to our own satisfaction. But of course this is a contradiction: the claim that there are no metanarratives is itself a metanarrative, an assertion about the fundamental nature of being. And so all the “individuals” look to Brian to give them meaning and purpose.

Thus it is with modernity. Having swallowed the myth of the autonomous individual, we have turned to the idol of waged labour to tell us what human “flourishing” looks like, and have allowed it to dictate what does – and does not – constitute the “necessary” organisation of human life. And just as there are charismatic individuals at the head of cults who profit from the compliance of their followers, so there are those who profit from the cult of work: the owners of capital, the inheritors of technocratic wealth, the class of “super-managers”. We are all persuaded that we are benefitting from our participation in the cult; but as the widening disparity in wealth distribution, as the increasing influence of corporate prerogatives in human lives indicates, we are aware that the benefits of corporate capitalism are limited indeed. Tellingly, our sense of ourselves as “wage slaves” indicates the depths of despair into which we have plunged as a consequence.

Our longing for a messiah – and hence the popularity of self-help “gurus” and online “influencers” – is an acknowledgement of our sense of entrapment, our desire for liberation. And yet the “gurus” and “influencers” have such sway over us precisely because we want the liberation to be on our own terms, on those terms that satisfy our buy-in to the myth of the autonomous individual. In other words, we don’t want to be liberated from the crushing weight of modernity; we want to be set free in such a way as gives us what the myths of modernity promise us, the false myths which they used to seduce us in the first place. We want wealth; we want power; we want to be influential or highly thought of; and, most of all, we want to not to have to work. We want to be in a state where we don’t have to work, precisely because we have gained the things which the cults of hard work, achievement, and celebrity have falsely promised will be ours.

This desire mirrors the “freedom” from “wage slavery” which the founders of modern economic theory – Adam Smith and Karl Marx – argued could only be obtained either by becoming wealthy enough to not have to work, or else by seizing control of the means of production. Only through acts of human power can we liberate ourselves from the constructions of work and economy which we ourselves have created. This in turn feeds into the cult of achievement, and the myth of hard work as the avenue to moral legitimacy, social respectability, and personal salvation.

However, today’s reading from Isaiah reminds us that freedom – true human flourishing – ultimately resides in the sovereignty of God. This sovereignty is not the autocratic rule of a political tyrant or an economic hegemony; it is the free will of God, who extends the invitation to relationship and declares faithfulness to covenant. God seeks to exist relationally with humankind, and seeks also a response in faith that embodies covenantal co-existence in our relations with one another. Work is part of this covenantal relationship: work, properly understood, is part of our orientation to God, part of how our relationships with one another reflect covenantal life with God. It is not something that either enslaves us, or from which we need seek escape. Just as Isaiah declares hope to the Exiles in Babylon, so the prophet likewise declares hope to us: there is an alternative that is open to us, if only we have the strength to recover the true meaning of work in human life. This freedom resides, not in our acts of power, nor in the declarations of “gurus” and “influencers”, but in the God who declares that alienation is not the normative condition of human life, and that exile will not have the final say in human affairs.

Psalm 29

1. Discussion

Like the Psalms which have formed part of the Lectionary readings in the preceding weeks, Psalm 29 follows a by-now familiar pattern. One of the many Psalms which is attributed to King David, it begins with an exhortation to worship, followed by a description of God as creator, which in turn leads into an articulation of God’s sovereignty. The Psalm concludes with an invocation of God’s aid, the hope that God will lend the force of God’s sovereignty to the Chosen People.

Despite these apparent similarities, however, there are points of difference. The exhortation to worship is a command to ascribe to God the characteristics of “glory”, “strength”, and “holy splendour”. These features belong only to God and to God’s Name: they are bound up in the very being of God. Therefore, to worship God is to acknowledge those realities about God which can only be ascribed to God.  Rulers and potentates might aspire to “glory” and “splendour”; they might be attributed to kings like David (or, more famously, his son Solomon). But these ascriptions are false: only God can truly be said to be “glorious”, or “strong”, or “splendidly holy”.

Likewise, the verses which describe God-as-creator do so in the context of God’s sovereignty. God did not only God create the natural world, but God’s voice is “over” the forces and powers of nature. Powerful and intimidating though the roaring of storm-driven waves might be, much though the clap of thunder might strike fear into human hearts, yet over these the voice of God prevails. This is the voice that brought creation into being, and which commanded its features and attributes. Such is the power of God’s voice that it can break the cedars of Lebanon, which were proverbial for their strength; it can make even the land itself “skip” like rambunctious young animals – perhaps a reference to seismic activity?

All these manifestations of God’s creative power and sovereignty elicit the response: “Glory!” This is not a fearful obeisance made to an overwhelming tyrant; it is a spontaneous exultation giving to God what properly belongs to God. The powers of nature do indeed threaten human existence on occasion and cause us to tremble in fear; but these powers are overmastered by the strength of God, and themselves articulate the glory of God. Thus the Psalmist concludes with an appeal to God; may God uphold the people in strength and bless them with peace. This appeal is in turn a recognition of the sovereignty of God: despite our conceits that we can make our own peace from our own acts of power, we understand that we are ultimately vulnerable and powerless. Only in God do we find true strength, and only on the basis of that strength do we find true peace. Everything else is contingent and conditional.

2. Reflection

Idolatry is the worship of idols. An idol is essentially anything created by humans which is elevated into the place of God, and to whom is ascribed those characteristics that properly belong only to God. Idols can be material things, such as images worshipped as gods, or which we become obsessed with, such as wealth or material possessions. Idols can also be intangible: ideologies, for example, or fame or celebrity. But idols can also be those things which we turn into an end in itself, rather than recognising that they are just a means to an end.

Modernity’s construction of work and economy involves an idolatry: the idolatry of waged labour as the primary determinant of human worth and legitimacy. Work, in the form of waged labour, has become an end in itself – so much so that it dominates the whole of human life, invading even those parts of our existence which were previously thought to be separate from our working lives. The idolatry of waged labour serves several purposes: it shackles human life to the prerogatives of corporations and the system of corporatist capitalism; it reinforces the present structures of oppressive power and economic inequality; it perpetuates the ideology of perpetual economic growth through production and consumption; and it legitimises the enactment of punitive social policies against the poor and the vulnerable on the basis of their alleged “non-contribution” to society.

The idolatry of waged labour is both an end in itself as well as a means to ends. By making being “gainfully employed” the primary benchmark of human legitimacy, we not only serve the purposes of those who benefit from the status quo, we dismiss all other forms of human labour – from volunteer work and family raising to artistic creativity – to a secondary or even irrelevant level in human existence. The word “gainfully” indicates this reality: it suggests that waged labour is the only legitimate occupation of human time; all other forms of work are, at best, a necessary evil. Waged labour thus becomes the point and purpose of human existence – it becomes the end toward which human life is geared.

The idolatrous aspect of waged labour occurs, not just in it being made an end in itself, but in the qualities that are ascribed to it. Again, these qualities often serve the purposes of those who benefit from modernity’s construction of work and economy; but they also have the effect of ascribing to waged labour qualities that properly belong only to God. For example, it is often asserted that only by “having a job” and “earning a living” can we truly be free. This “freedom” is often articulated as our capacity to “afford” things: a car, a home, material goods, overseas holidays. In other words, our “freedom” only resides in those things which our economy produces, and which we can then purchase with the income earned through labour. Conversely, our “freedom” is also said to express itself through the “economic security” which our participation in waged labour allegedly brings: the capacity to save money and develop financial reserves, even as we are engaged in conspicuous consumption.

In other words, our “freedom” is dependent and contingent upon the continuation of the status quo. But what this actually reveals is that we are enslaved; our freedom is an illusion created by all the characteristics which the idolatry of waged labour assigns to modernity’s construction of work and economy. Those characteristics, far from being the markers of our freedom, are instead the measure of our enslavement.

The dilemma of entrapment in which modernity finds itself is a revelation of the true nature of idolatry. When we try to elevate human constructions to the level of God,or assign to those constructions the qualities that properly belong to God, we enslave ourselves to their prerogatives. Instead of setting ourselves free by “overthrowing” what we imagine to be the tyranny of God, we instead reduce ourselves to servitude to our own conceits. To be sure, there are many ways in which religious institutions seek to turn God into an enslaving idol, a reality against which the entire prophetic tradition of Scripture – and ultimately Jesus himself – reacted. But to mistake the tyranny of religion for the tyranny of God is to fail to see the wood for the trees: it is to ascribe to God a human construction.

But Psalm 29 reminds us that true freedom resides in ascribing to God those qualities and characteristics that are properly Gods. The sovereignty and power and glory of God emerge from God’s own nature: they are not powers imposed upon humanity in the manner in which earthly rulers impose their power but exist independently of human reality. Indeed, it is in God as creator that God’s splendour and strength and glory reside; and we, who are the created, are enjoined to acknowledge this reality. For in making this acknowledgement, we recognise the qualitative difference between ourselves and God: God is not our cool best friend, or indulgent elderly relative, or eccentric neighbour. Rather, God is God. And we are not like God.

But this difference also alerts us to the fact that God is also not an oppressive tyrant. Because God’s splendour and glory and sovereignty exist independently of human reality, we are free to respond to God’s invitation to relationship through faith. God does not seek our fearful submission but our genuine, open-hearted response. Which means God leaves God-self vulnerable to the possibility that we may reject God’s invitation. But God sustains faithfulness to that invitation out of the sovereignty of God’s own free election. Unlike humans, who respond to rejection with their own rejection, God upholds commitment to covenantal co-existence.

Work does indeed exist to serve the cause of human freedom – the true flourishing of human reality. But that freedom does not reside in the prerogatives of any system of economic organisation, nor in the self-interest of those who benefit from the maintenance of that system. Rather, it resides in understanding that work in human life is part of God’s desire that our lives together reflect God’s invitation into covenantal relationship. Work is part of what it means to be human because it is part of how we relate to one another – and that relation can either reflect the conceit of our own assumptions of godliness, or it can reflect the freedom located in acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty. 

Acts 10: 34-43

1. Discussion

The Acts of the Apostles is generally agreed by modern scholars to have been written by the same author responsible for The Gospel According to Luke. Both texts are addressed to the same individual – or community – identified as Theophilus (“lover of God”), and contain a narrative describing the life and ministry of Jesus, as well as events within the early church. As such, they fit in with the model of “epistolary history” that was common at the time. Plutarch’s Lives are a near-contemporary example of the same kind of narrative. Both Luke and Acts are deliberately fashioned to be didactic: their purpose is to instruct, to convey a message. They are “history” as this was understood in the ancient world: not an objective procession of “facts”, but as moral, ethical, and theological instruction.

Today’s passage begins after Peter, who by this stage was head of the disciple group based in Jerusalem, has been summoned to the city of Caesarea by Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Cornelius is described as a devout man who prays constantly and gives alms to the poor; he is also described as one who is held in high esteem by the whole Jewish community. Now, given that Luke was most likely written some time after the failed Jewish revolt of 67-70AD, this is an extraordinary description. For a Roman military officer, part of the oppressive military machine of imperial Rome, to be held in esteem by the Jewish community for his piety and alms-giving, is quite incredible. But the incredible nature of this statement reinforces the point: the Good News of Jesus was not to be confined to the community of Jewish Christians, but was intended by God for the whole world.

On the other hand, it may be that Cornelius, like the “Greeks” mentioned in The Gospel According to John, had either converted to Judaism or were somehow drawn to the faith and an acknowledgement of God as the One God. That Peter will later clash with Paul over the admission of Gentiles to the church, and whether or not they should submit to the Mosaic Law, is an ironic point concealed by the present passage. It is, afterall, in the future; and its is Peter himself who is reaching out to the Gentiles in this case, not an outsider like Paul. So hovering about the present passage is the observation that radical actions are acceptable if they are undertaken by the powers that be, and their consequences accordingly controlled or channelled for specific purposes. But once an outsider does so, and sets in train events that cannot be controlled – that is another matter altogether!

Today’s passage from Acts commences once Peter has met Cornelius and his family and dependents. Peter begins by declaring his belief that the Gospel is intended for all, and that those of every nation who “fear” God are acceptable as members of the community of the faithful.  “Fear” in this context means reverence; it is not about terrified submission, but about acknowledging the utterly other nature of God, the absolute sovereignty of God. There is, to be sure, an element of “darkness”, of understanding that the presence of God in human life can sometimes be perilous. But “fear” is not about “being afraid”. Rather, it describes the proper attitude of awe and reverence that is attached to the presence of God.

Peter then proceeds to encapsulate the ministry of Jesus: his Baptism in the power of God’s Spirit, his preaching, his healing. The latter is especially noteworthy, given that it is described as liberating people from the “oppression” of the devil. In other words, Jesus’ ministry is a ministry of setting free those who are in captivity to demonic powers. “Demonic” in this sense need not mean a “demon” or “devil” – it can be any reality in human life that alienated people from relationship with God and with one another. Something is “demonic” if it cripples and distorts human life. So Jesus is about setting people free – “freedom” in this sense being, not the capacity to do whatever they like, but being free to respond of their own will to God’s invitation into relationship, into new states of being.

Peter concludes by describing the ministry of the disciple group: as the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, they are to preach the Good News to all those who seek to know God and undertake the relationship of covenant. This Good News is that God welcomes all those who come to God through faith in Christ. Again, implicit in this is the clash that will later occur between Paul and Peter: that relationship with God is not a matter of Law (that is, compliance with the Mosaic Law) but of faith: of acknowledgement of Jesus as the Christ, the Chosen One who is God’s decisive intervention in human history. But for the moment, that problematic debate is for the future: what matters now is that if Cornelius, his family, and dependents believe in God through faith in Jesus, that is enough. The Good News is available to them, and they are welcome in the community of faith.

Today’s reading from The Acts of the Apostles sets out the basic message of the Gospel: that God’s invitation into grace extends to all who believe, regardless of their background or status. The details are not yet there – whether grace is dependent upon compliance or comes through a freely given response. But the central message is clear: exclusivity is not the nature of salvation. It is not the sole possession of a “club” of the “elect” or the “righteous”. It is the free gift of God to all humankind. Thus, the old divisions of “insiders” and “outsiders”, “righteous” and “unrighteous”, “elect” and “condemned” no longer apply. In God’s decisive act in Jesus, God has wrought something new, and changed, not only the course of human destiny, but the very basis of the relationship between God and creation.   

2. Reflection

The ubiquity of modernity’s construction of work and economy hides the fact that it is essentially an exclusivist paradigm, one in which the few benefit at the expense of the many. It hides this exclusivity behind a universal promise: that anyone, so long as they work hard enough for long enough, can “make it”. And “making it” means anything you want it mean: whether a fancy house, lots of material possessions, overseas holidays, or money in the bank. Fulfil the conditions of “salvation” which modernity’s myth of the autonomous individual prescribes, and you get your ticket to “paradise”.

Except that’s not how the promise pans out for most people. The ubiquity of modernity’s construction of work and economy is demonstrative of the extent to which corporate prerogatives have taken over human life. The demands and controls of waged labour within the corporate economy occur alongside the increasing insecurity and fragmentation of the “labour market” as casualisation (essentially used as a cost cutting measure) makes work less secure, more unstable, and less rewarding. Despite its promises, modernity’s world of waged labour cannot even guarantee job security – precisely because, ultimately, the principle concern of corporatist capitalism is not to fulfil the promises it makes to working people, but to increase the rewards it delivers to the few who are the beneficiaries of the status quo.

This is illustrated by the fact that, over the course of the last 40 years under the “neoliberal ascendancy”, wages for workers have stagnated or even retreated in real terms, while dividend payments to shareholders and remuneration rates for corporate executives have increased exponentially. Moreover, those in full-time employment have had to work longer hours in order to receive the same rate of pay, while an ever increasing number of employees are forced to work multiple low-waged, insecure, short-term contract jobs just to remain “economically viable”. This is to say nothing of the millions of workers who are now essentially “self-employed” in the so-called “gig economy” or in the “services sector” as freelancers running their own cleaning, gardening, household maintenance and “personal services” businesses. Such employees receive none of the benefits of conventional employment, and in addition to covering their own operating costs, essentially have to fund their own retirements, pay insurance, maintain their own financial records, and lodge tax returns – without any of the resources available to major corporations.

The story for the “top 10%” however, is markedly different. Over the same period that work has become less rewarding and more insecure, their incomes and share of wealth have increased to levels not seen since the days of the landed aristocracy in the 18th and 19th centuries. The class of “super-managers” receive exorbitant remuneration, allegedly to compensate for the “burden” of responsibility which they shoulder – yet even when they are forced to resign or are effectively dismissed for incompetence, receive equally extortionate “golden handshakes” by way of compensation or the paying out of their contracts. Likewise, the owners of capital and the inheritors of the wealth of the first generations of industrialists no longer need a wage to live in ease and comfort: they need only inherit a fraction of their overall fortunes in the financial markets in order to receive a rate of return greater than the growth rates of entire economies. As a consequence, over the 40 years of the “neoliberal ascendancy”, when corporatist capitalism has reached its present heights of influence and control, the share of wealth of the top 10% of income earners has increased to nearly 40% of total global wealth. Meanwhile, the poorest 50% of the population are left with something like 10% of global wealth.

The promises of modernity’s construction of work and economy are a mask, not just for the extent of corporate control over human life, but for the injustice inherent within corporatist capitalism. The promises mask an oppressive power structure that diminishes human dignity and does harm to the human person. It claims to “liberate” human life so that individuals may realise their “potential”; but in truth it indentures our existence to the prerogatives of economic elites. In doing so, it creates huge divides within and across human societies, reducing life to a competition for resources and damaging the relational ties between individuals and communities that work and economy are supposed to serve. In other words, the “neoliberal ascendancy” has created a “club” of “insiders” and “outsiders”, of those who are included within the orbit of “grace” and those who are excluded. It defines what “righteousness” and “heresy” look like, and determines those who are “acceptable” and those who are “unclean”.

But today’s reading from Acts reminds us that grace and salvation are not for the exclusive benefit of a self-selected few, they are the free gift of God for all humankind. What is required for grace is not membership to an “elect” but our own free response to freely offered love. Work and economy are realities in human life that, properly understood, serve the purpose of enabling human fruitfulness by enabling relational co-existence between individuals and communities. Thus, the promises and rewards of grace have nothing to do with economics as this is constructed by modernity. Their purpose is not to make us rich or indulge our egos. Rather,  they are one of many aspects of life that serve as means to the end of human flourishing. It follows that injustice and oppression have nothing to do with work or economy; and that where they do exist, we are called to restore human dignity by enacting justice.

The ministry of Jesus came to free us from the forces that deform human life and alienate us from one another and God. Work, as one of the gifts of God for human life, serves the same purpose – provided always that our constructions of work serve God’s calling into life together, and not the exclusionary prerogatives of self-interest and oppressive power.

Matthew 3: 13-17

1. Discussion[1]

The description of Jesus’ Baptism in The Gospel According to Matthew occurs after the longer, and more dramatic, description of the ministry of John the Baptist and his condemnation of the religious leadership based in the Temple. In that encounter, John had foretold the coming of the One who would Baptise with “Spirit and fire”, and about whom John said he was not worthy to carry his sandals. Jesus is characterised as a Judge who will store grain in his granary and consign chaff to everlasting fire – a characterisation we can choose to interpret as either personal, relating to the “righteous” and the “unrighteous”, or as qualitative, relating to that within human nature that alienates us from God. Given John’s condemnation of the religious leadership, who regarded themselves as models of “righteousness”, the personal argument becomes hugely problematic; whereas the qualitative argument appears more consistent with Jesus’ ministry to the outcast and the discarded in society.

Be that as it may, by contrast to this dramatic and challenging passage, the brief description of Jesus’ Baptism seems almost banal by comparison. Jesus comes to John to be Baptised, but John protests, arguing that it is he who should be Baptised by Jesus. But Jesus insists, responding that it is necessary to fulfil “all righteousness”. What is this “righteousness”? Given the tongue-lashing that John has already dished out to the Pharisees and Sadducees, it appears that this is consistent with the theme of Matthew: that “pedigree” is irrelevant to salvation. In this context, Jesus being Baptised by John makes sense: John, the one who is not worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals, is nonetheless the one who administers Baptism; Jesus, the One who will come as God’s Chosen, submits to Baptism at the hands of John, a mere mortal. The inversion conveyed in John’s dire warning is embodied in Jesus’ Baptism: by submitting to Baptism by mortal hands, God is entering fully into human life and all that it involves. In this act, God is already signalling the overthrowing of conventional expectations and standards announced at Jesus’ birth, and which will be fulfilled in the events of Good Friday and Easter.

And so Jesus is Baptised, and as he emerges from the waters, the “heavens are opened to him”. This is far less dramatic than the “tearing open” of the heavens that occurs in Mark. It is, however, both a revelation to and a revelation about Jesus. Jesus receives the Spirit from heaven, a kind of anointing that, as it were, commissions him to begin his ministry. And the voice from heaven declares: This is my Son, my Beloved. Jesus is both commissioned and revealed.

The brief account of Jesus’ Baptism in Matthew may seem anti-climactic, but it nonetheless alerts us to who Jesus is and what he has come to set in train. Set in the context of John’s criticism of the religious leadership and his description of Jesus as Judge, Jesus’ Baptism at John’s hands reveals that the judgement he is to exercise is not the conventional judgement of the powerful over the powerless. It is not the condemnatory judgement serving the oppressive structures of injustice. Rather, it is the subversive judgement that carries both God’s “No!” to that within us which alienates us from God and from one another, as well as God’s “Yes!” to faithfulness and reconciliation. Just as Jesus will subvert and overthrow the messianic expectations others will have of him, so as Judge he will overthrow the conventions and presuppositions of power that condemn the helpless and the marginal to endless servitude and exploitation.  

2. Reflection

The way in which modernity organises work and the economy embodies many assumptions and conventions that cast judgement on human life and articulate the exercise of unjust or oppressive power. Those who are unemployed, underemployed, or unable to work are often pejoratively labelled in various ways that imply they are not “contributing” to society, or indeed, are actively “feeding off” the community. Likewise, those are harmed by work are often pathologized in ways that imply they are responsible for the harm that has befallen them; or, if they protest the harm done to them, are regarded as “troublemakers” who warrant the application of punitive “performance management” measures. On the broader level, this demonisation of those who are not “gainfully employed”, aside from ignoring the systemic injustices that cause people to be either unemployed or forced into insecure, short-term employment, also legitimises the enactment of punishing social welfare legislation that subjects welfare recipients to demeaning and invasive conditions and restrictions.

The cult of work, the myth of the autonomous individual, the idolisation of achievement and celebrity, the ideology of endless consumption and production – all these are the vehicles through which the oppressive structures of unjust and inhuman power are exercised. They set the standards and articulate the means by which human legitimacy is assessed, as well as the lines along which judgement is applied to human life. All those who fail to meet the requisite criteria are deemed to be morally suspect: “failure”, economic marginality, incapacity to “participate” in the economy are all markers of personal moral dereliction. This serves the self-interest of those who benefit from the status quo: the vilification of the victims of injustice both silences their claims for redress and recruits the rest of society to the cause of preserving existing structures. Moral sanctity becomes a weapon of oppression and demonisation.

The Baptism account from Matthew, however, describes a process of judgement that subverts the structures of power and the assumptions of moral righteousness by which they are supported. Jesus, the Son of God, submits to Baptism at human hands as an act of solidarity with humanity. John, having warned the religious leaders that their arrogance and abuse of power will not go unnoticed, becomes a participant in the process by which this inversion of power is demonstrated: having declared his unworthiness, he becomes Jesus’ Baptiser. God, overthrowing all convention, submits to human power in order to stand with those who are silenced and harmed by that power. This prefigures Jesus’ own Crucifixion; and in his Resurrection, he will embody the decisive act of liberation by which God sets humanity free from the reign of injustice.

Work has been subjected to this thrall of injustice. The prioritisation of waged labour in human life, and the stigmatisation of those who either are unable to submit to its claims, or who resist its encroachment upon human dignity, is emblematic of the injustice that stands at the heart of modernity’s construction of work and economy. It acts as a judge who deals condemnatory judgement against the powerless on behalf of the powerful. By submitting to human Baptism, God subsumes human conventions and assumptions, and overthrows them with the logic of the Gospels, which declares the dignity of all persons and the inclusion of the marginalised and the outcast in the orbit of God’s grace.

Thus, all those who are harmed and silenced by modernity’s myth of the primacy of waged labour, are in fact the epitome of those for whom the Good News is intended. And all those who assume positions of moral ascendancy as a consequence of benefitting from the status quo are representative of those whom John warned would be subject to confrontation and critique by the Gospel of Jesus. Jesus’ Baptism is God’s opening declaration of who Jesus is, and what his ministry entails; and this is as true today for the structures of unjust power that have deformed human work, as I was for the oppressive conventions and presuppositions that divided people into the categories of “righteous” and “unrighteous”.


[1] The discussion of this week’s reading from The Gospel According to Matthew is indebted to Bill Loader’s commentary on this passage, located at http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtBaptismJesus.htm

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