Deliver me, O my God!
May your blessing be on your people (from Psalm 3:7-8).
John was addressing people who were living geographically in the land promised to them, but the conquering Roman army was occupying that land. John preaches to them that the kingdom of heaven has come near. Many are listening and responding. They come from the city of Jerusalem and from all over the country to hear John and to be baptized by him.
To summarize, so far: John preached. People responded.
Matthew tells us that among the crowds that came to hear John and be baptized by him, some religious leaders also showed up. John addressed them sharply, calling them names. Look back at Isaiah 28 to read judgment on the corrupt rulers, priests, and prophets of his time--and, to John's time, and, to ours.
Charles Cousar, Texts for Preaching, A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year A:
What John attacks is the presumptuousness of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The prophet had written, "look to the rock from which you were hewn...Look to Abraham your father" (Isa 51:1-2). The problem was that the rock had become something behind which to hide, a place of supposed protection, a spot of security. John challenges the privileged position claimed by the Pharisees and Saducees...Repentance has to do not only with remorse over past failures, but also with a new heart and a changed life..
Those of us who are faithful churchgoers and Bible readers may get uncomfortable when we read John the Baptist's warnings to the studious and scrupulous leaders of that time. "Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."
He said, "even now." Do we hear the "even now" to extend to our time? Is it still now?
What do we do with this ax and winnowing fork talk? What kind of trees are we? What is our fruit? Are we more wheat or chaff? Should we just hope that John is talking about pruning a few limbs but leaving the main tree standing, separating our bad parts from our good and tossing out the bad?
I'm looking at Gospel Parallels (Thomas Nelson Publishers, edited by Burton H. Throckmorton, Jr.).
Luke doesn't specify that it was John who baptized Jesus. Mark doesn't report any discussion between Jesus and John. Both are ambiguous on whether anyone other than Jesus could hear the voice from heaven saying "Thou art my beloved Son...."
Matthew, on the other hand, includes discussion between Jesus and John before the baptism. That is, John didn't think he should do it, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" Jesus insisted, saying it would fulfill all righteousness.
Allen & Williamson, in their Preaching the Gospels, point out that:
Matthew has been concerned from the very beginning of his Gospel with celebrating those whose behavior fulfills a higher righteousness His genealogy lifts up instances of higher righteousness: Tamar, Rahab, Uriah, Ruth. Joseph manifested the higher righteousness, married Mary.... Trusting in status and rank being full of oneself in matters of faith, counts for nothing in Matthew's eyes. What counts is morally responsible actions [My reminder--read Matthew 25:31-46 for example.]
When Jesus came out of the water after having been baptized, Matthew, like Mark and Luke, says that the heavens were opened and the Spirit descended on him like a dove. Unlike them, though, Matthew has the voice speaking to the crowd, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."
We might pause a moment and consider what being a son entails, what are the obligations, and, more interesting to some of us, what are the benefits.
Jesus was offered three benefits (or was tempted to show off what he, as Son, could do): the power to convert stones to bread; the ability to escape the pull of gravity; many riches if he would transfer his allegiance away from his Father.
We can read about Jesus' temptations and consider how they might be applicable in our own lives. For example, how much effort, mental and physical, even social, do I put into worrying about something that I was consume immediately and only I will consume? How important is impressing the crowd to me? Would I rather do something flashy than something that wouldn't be noticed? When faced with a hard, or even a not-so-hard decision, do I really believe that what God wants is more important than other considerations?
Thomas Long, in his commentary on Matthew, points out that the ancient Hebrews faced similar tests on their long journey through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. He suggests looking again at Exodus 16; 17; and 19-32. They complained, they failed, they looked for other sources of help. Well, how different from ours is their story?
Long summarizes the three temptations as they appear to us. For the first, he says,
The church experiences this form of temptation whenever it risks losing sight of the breadth of its calling or when we measure the effectiveness of the church according to how quickly it responds to our personal ideas and needs, our demand to be fed.
For the second,
Trying out the promises of God to "see if they really work" is a sign not of sure faith but of fundamental doubt. It implies that ... we also know how, when, and where God is supposed to fulfill these divine promises. If God doesn't perform in just that prescribed way, either God must be a liar or there is no God....God is treated as our servant.
For the third,
Whenever we bow down to that which is not God--to nation, or race, or family, or social standing--hoping that this will fill our hearts, succumb to this temptation....
Long then summarizes his summaries:
Jesus does not waver from his calling, does not step off the way of suffering lured by the illusion of a shortcut, does not bypass the cross.
My child, if sinners entice you,
do not consent.
If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood;
let us wantonly ambush the innocent;
like Sheol let us swallow them alive
and whole, like those who go down to the Pit.
We shall find all kinds of costly things;
we shall fill our houses with booty.
Throw in your lot among us;
we will all have one purse”—
my child, do not walk in their way,
keep your foot from their paths;
for their feet run to evil,
and they hurry to shed blood.
For in vain is the net baited
while the bird is looking on;
yet they lie in wait—to kill themselves!
and set an ambush—for their own lives!
Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain;
it takes away the life of its possessors. [Common English Bible]