Last Sunday was the feast of the Epiphany. In the Western Church, the focus of that feast day is the manifestation of the Christ child to the Gentile Magi. But in the Eastern Church, the focus is the Baptism of Jesus. So in a sense, this Sunday is a kind of liturgical tribute to the tradition of the Eastern Church. And since the focus of the day is baptism, the Episcopal Church commends this day for baptisms or, if there are no baptisms, for the renewal of baptismal vows. And so that is exactly what we will do right after this sermon.
Jesus’ baptism is a bit of an anomaly. It doesn’t make sense on the face of it. John the Baptist is baptizing the people who come to him to cleanse them from sin. Yet, Christian scripture affirms that Jesus was without sin. So why did he need to be baptized? Moreover, John was, by his own admission, unworthy to perform the baptism—he wasn’t even worthy enough to touch Jesus’ shoes! I can think of only one reason for Jesus’ requesting baptism—as an act of solidarity. It was an act of solidarity with his cousin John, endorsing the validity of John’s ministry. But more importantly, it was an act of solidarity with the sinners standing in line by the banks of the River Jordan, and more generally, with all of sinful humanity as it moves step by step towards God’s all-forgiving love. Jesus, the Incarnate Word, submitted to baptism for the same reason that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, as an act of salvific solidarity.
And similarly, when we submit to baptism or are brought to baptism by our parents and godparents, it is a sign that we, in turn, wish to be in solidarity with God in Christ and to be members of his Body in the world.
In today’s Gospel reading, we get two snippets from a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees. The first snippet is about which commandment in the Law of Moses is the greatest. The second snippet is about the identity of the Messiah. Let me deal with snippet #2 first.
Jesus wants to silence the Pharisees who have been plaguing him with questions. So he asks them a riddle about the identity of the Messiah. He quotes the first verse of Psalm 110, written by King David about the crowning of a future Messiah. In that verse, David refers to the Messiah as “my Lord.” Now, biblical prophecy foretold that the Messiah would be a descendant of David. Why, then, would David refer to his own descendant as “my Lord”? For in a patriarchal culture such as ancient Israel, the ancestor is usually given higher rank than the descendant. So we have a mystery: The Messiah will be a descendant of King David, but he will outrank his ancestor. How can this be? Well, the Pharisees can’t solve this riddle, and they wisely stop pestering Jesus. We, on the other hand, know the answer. As the foster son of Joseph, Jesus the Messiah is the descendant of King David by adoption and can legitimately be called a Son of David. But as the only Son of God, Jesus outranks any earthly king, including his royal ancestor.
Now, let’s turn to the first snippet from the debate. What is the greatest commandment in the Law of Moses? Jesus answers, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” But that commandment alone is not sufficient to summarize the purpose of the entire Law of Moses, so Jesus adds a second commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” He tells them that these commandments are the two hinges that hold up the door of Holy Scripture. Now, Jesus is not saying that the other biblical commandments count for nothing. Far from it! But he is saying that these two commandments give us the lens by which to view all of Scripture, keeping us focused on what really matters.