“So your Jesus came from Nazareth. In Galilee.” Yiftach passed a bowl of dates to Mark, and then gestured around the courtyard, taking in its size and fading grandeur. “How is it that a family such as yours should be involved with someone from a backwater like Nazareth?” Mark’s forehead wrinkled. “Oh, not all of my family is ‘involved’ with Jesus, as you put it. Mark cast his mind back across the decades, remembering the discussions with his brother that had quickly turned into arguments. “My brother Benyamin refused to come and listen to Jesus teach, mostly because of where he was from. Things have changed little since then. Cut off from Judaea as Galilee is by Samaria, being predominantly poor and populated heavily by gentiles, families such as ours had little regard for anyone from the North. They’re still viewed with suspicion – or worse. And so, to this day my mother and I remain a source of shame to my brother, casting a shadow over his membership on the Council.”
Yiftach chewed a date thoughtfully. “And yet the Council appears to be willing to make exceptions. When it is…expedient to lay aside such bigotry.” Mark nodded slowly. “Yes indeed: Simon bar Giora, for instance. The Council appear to be willing to welcome a rebel from the hills of Galilee when he can provide an army of 15,000 to overthrow the wretched rule of John of Giscala. And they apparently are willing to allow the people of Jerusalem to hail Simon as the city’s savior and guardian.” His eyes took on a distant look. “But when a rabbi from the hills of Galilee entered the city, hailed by the people as the one who comes in the name of the Lord, singing songs of the coming kingdom of our father David, the Council did not welcome him with open arms.” Yiftach drank from his cup, quietly regarding Mark who was clearly lost in his memories. Mark came out of his reverie as he realized Simeon was once more inviting him to speak to the gathering. He patted Yiftach’s hand as he rose to speak. “Friends, last night I spoke of John, baptizing in the wilderness. Tonight, I will speak of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John.” He paused to collect his thoughts and then began.
“Jesus came down from Nazareth in Galilee. He waded into the river to where John stood, and John plunged him under the water. As he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him; and a voice came out of the heavens: ‘You are my beloved son, in you I am well pleased.’” He turned to Yiftach. “The divine favor falls upon a nobody from Nazareth, out there in the wilderness, and perhaps it was only Jesus himself who heard the heavenly voice on that day. But what happened surely recalls the words of the prophet Isaiah once more:
‘Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains might quake at your presence…
to make your name known to your enemies,
that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome things which we did not expect…
Such as no one has ever heard before.’”
Yiftach considered Mark’s words for a moment and then said, “If this were so, if the heavens were indeed rent asunder and Jesus named as son by the voice from heaven, then why did the crowds that lined the Jordan not acclaim him as messiah there and then, and follow him to Jerusalem? What happened when Jesus came out of the river?” Mark responded, “Immediately the Spirit impelled him to go deeper into the wilderness.”
A voice from the other side of the courtyard called out. “But why was Jesus baptized by John at all? If John believed he was not worthy to even untie Jesus’ sandals like the lowliest servant, why would Jesus submit himself to John’s baptism?” Mark turned, seeking out the face of the questioner, a young woman. “A good question. I wonder if it is for this reason.” He turned back to the group. “Until this point, Jesus had participated in the redemptive process maintained by the institutions of the temple-state, like everyone else in Israel. But now he is baptized into the waters of the Jordan – symbolizing his death to the old order, to the structures of forgiveness that have not brought freedom to our people – especially those among whom Jesus grew up, the poor of Galilee. From that moment on, Jesus would constantly find himself at odds with the representatives of the temple-state. As well as with the one who stands behind all the powers as they manifest themselves down through the centuries. For Jesus was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels were ministering to him.” His gaze swept the gathering. “Just as our ancestors were tempted in the wilderness after being freed from the tyranny of the pharaohs, so was Jesus tempted. And not for the last time, as we will hear in his story. This battle between the Spirit and Satan is an ancient one, and it reaches its climax in Jesus. The new creation – the new world that Jesus proclaimed – begins with Jesus renouncing the old order.”
“Then he was a rebel,” said Yiftach. “Like Simon bar Giora.” Mark smiled. “It’s possible to say that Jesus was a rebel. But not a rebel in the manner of Simon bar Giora…”