We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.
Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk
Monday, July 31, 2017
Matthew 3:1-3 (Again)
And the field happens to be a desert, a wilderness. Now, if this were a biography of Jesus of Nazareth, we would say, "OK, that's cool. Now we know the context. Hope Jesus took plenty of water and stayed hydrated. What's next?" But Matthew is not a biography; it is a gospel. The rules are different. Things mean things. And they don't mean just one thing at a time. And what they mean can change as our situation as readers changes.
Right now, it might be important for us to see "desert" as a place of simplicity, often a place of spirituality. Faithful folks go into the desert to meditate, to find God, and/or to escape the temptations of the world. There is no Chiang Mai Central Festival mega-shopping center, symbol of a crass capitalist economy, in the desert. And, tomorrow or next week, it might be equally important for us to recall that in the Exodus God led Israel out of Egypt into the Wilderness, just as Jesus fled to Egypt, returned to Nazareth, and began his public ministry in the wilderness—symbolic of his being the New Israel, the vessel of God's leading and salvation. Or again, in ancient times, the desert was also seen as a place of challenge and of transition.
In the midst of these various options, the important thing for us to understand is that Jesus' going into the wilderness to be baptized by John was no small or incidental thing. He didn't go there because John was there. That's biographical thinking. The gospel places him there to alert us to the profound significance of what was going to happen there. Jesus is about spirituality, transitions, salvation, challenge, and the losses and gains of going into the desert. Matthew wants us to pay attention. We are entering special territory, hearing a different kind of story. This is not about biography. It is about good news.