Why Would God Repent? The Theology Behind a Remorseful Jesus (Matt. 3:13)

The New Testament preserves a strange incident which offers a key to understanding the internal radicalism of the Gospel message. Jesus is walking beside the Jordan River with his cousin, the wandering prophet John, and asks to be baptised. Initially John resists this request saying “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matt. 3:13). John seems to know that Jesus is more than a relative making a fleeting visit. Does John sense that Jesus is ‘God in the flesh’? At the very least, he knows Jesus is the Messiah; the one for whom John and Israel have been waiting. Why would God’s anointed need to be purified of sins? The request must have seemed an affront to his deeply ingrained religious attitudes. Wasn’t God always holy? Jesus’ answer is fittingly obscure given this assumption: “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfil all righteousness.” In Judaism, righteousness (tzedek) is related to the notion of remaining faithful to God’s Covenant’. Why then would the Son of God need repentance? The appeal to John only makes sense if God were attempting to repair the Covenant-relationship from the divine perspective. What might this mean?

In previous generations, God (through the Prophets) had condemned Israel for its moral recklessness and religious promiscuity. For these failures they had been enslaved, scattered and exiled. Children were made orphans; fathers and mothers were robbed of their children; foreign armies despoiled the sacred places of their religion.  Yet in the sheer rapidity of their misfortune, God’s punishment appeared to descend into a series of meaningless and brutal acts. And yet, despite the vale of tears cast over the people of Israel, God appeared to be unmoved by the suffering of the people. Something of this existential despair can be found in the Book of Job. In this text God is reduced to a pitiless and vindictive trickster, who makes a bet with Satan that Job will not forsake his god, despite being pained, dispossessed and humiliated.  After putting Job through a series of gruelling trials, this blameless man finds it within himself to argue with God concerning the injustice of his situation: ‘God may well slay me; I may have no hope/ yet I will argue my case before God’ (Job 13:15: Miles 324). God’s response to Job is both surprising and unnerving: “Have you an arm like God’s? Can you thunder with a voice like His?” (Job 40:9; Miles 313). All God can do to justify these appalling actions is to appeal to great power (the habitual attitude of dictators). Such an answer was probably just as unsatisfactory to ancient Jewish readers as many modern ones.

Why does great power give any the right to inflict suffering on others? Doesn’t God care about other creatures? Or are we just pieces on a cosmic game-board? Given this monstrous lack of empathy, it is easy to see why the modern detractor of religion, Richard Dawkins, calls such a deity ‘jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully’ (Dawkins The God Delusion p. 51). Given what God is meant to be; the author of the whole of time and space, is it really surprising that the Source of all is hardened to the little details of birth, suffering and death? Can such a Personality even begin to understand what we finite creatures experience? Ancient Greek philosophers like the Epicureans doubted it. If the gods existed, they thought, they would remain in a perfect world of their own. Insulated in their own divine bliss, they would show as little interest in the feelings of human beings as we take interest in the feelings of ants.

Should the badly treated insects (as Dawkins implies) go their own way? Is this God really worthy of worship? The answer to these questions can be found in the unfolding story which begins on the banks of the Jordan. The New Testament charts what Jack Miles calls a ‘crisis in the life of God’; the moment when God comes to suspect that the Thou was an abuser; that the Ground of Being might have wronged Job after all. The narratives we have, do not tell us what prompted this rupture in the inner-life of God. Yet, this we can justly say without injury to the integrity of the New Testament’s own theo-logic. God is not some dispassionate Being outside time (like Aristotle’s Prime Mover) but a voice to be argued with, persuaded and convinced. As Moses and Abraham learned, God’s mind can be changed by discursive means. While it’s nearly impossible to fully understand the motives behind such a decision; its consequences are at the core of Christian proclamation.  Jesus (whom the Gospel of John calls ‘the Word made flesh’) descends to the level of the human ants, lives like one of them, thinks like one of them, and eventually dies like one of them. He learns the cost of his own wilful blindness concerning the physical and moral limitations of those he commands. God’s resolve to mend his ways is made clear through Jesus’ request for baptism. God holds himself up to his own religious law, tacitly acknowledging that he caused pain and misery to his creatures and more narrowly damaged his Covenant with the people of Israel. God realizes that harsh judgement and moralising have wrecked creation. Now God seeks forgiveness from his people. The divine becoming human is not about God’s glory (seeking more adoring subjects) but about God coming as a supplicant before an angry and jaded community, who do not deserve their suffering. Among other things, this reading reveals a startling truth. For at least two millennia, many in the Church have supposed that a central part of Jesus’ mission was to demonstrate that the Jews had failed in their task as a holy people. Yet, if we stop to think about these matters in the light of Jesus’ enigmatic baptism,  the meaning of the incarnation is the exact opposite to the one proposed by  Christian supersessionists.The people had in general held their ground in the midst of dispair. God as Jesus had not come to show the Hebrews their spiritual failure. Rather, he had come in order to beg their forgiveness for his own.

In the past, Yahweh had kept a firm hand on the people through the ultimate sanction of death. As God declares in Deuteronomy: ‘This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him’ (NIV 30:19-20).  This shadow of death extended over the whole people of Israel; from the defiant child to the little old man who dared to collect wood on the Sabbath. To refuse the Torah was to wish destruction on the whole community. Yet, as a living breathing human being, God seems to share the mortal horror of death. Jesus spends much of his time lifting its effects; allowing everyone he meets to choose life in place of sickness and death. Yet unlike his earlier visitation at Sinai, God does this with joyful irresponsibility; with few rules and requirements; faithfulness appears to be enough in this next phase of Covenantal relationship. Some do not even have to ask to share in this new abundance of life, like Lazarus of Bethany (John 11:1-44). Yet God knows that one cannot hope to repair the consequences of divine wrath unless those who have been lost are restored.

There can be no true healing unless death is done away with; not merely in the life of one or two, but in the life of all. To do this, Yahweh (that sometimes ferocious Personality) takes on the role of the sacrificial victim according the grisly imperatives of an earlier self. On the cross Jesus as God becomes his own sacrifice to quell a sense of sin according to his own rules (Leviticus 4:7). John subliminally recognises this, although it might have horrified him if he had considered the full implications of his designation of Jesus as “the Lamb of God” (John 1:29) Here the Lord of ‘the Angel Armies’ (2 Kings 6:8-23) stands in the place of all those (human and animal) that have died for the Jerusalem religious cult. Yet, this is not a sacrifice of self-glorification. Jesus uses his death as a vehicle for the most radical healing project of all. God makes personal desolation the means of beginning creation’s salvage. As Carl Jung put the thought, Jesus’ execution is the moment when God attempts to ‘rescue mankind from himself’ (Answer to Job, p. 93). At the Resurrection, God initiates the final stage of this rescue; fulfilling the imperative of divine repentance by allowing others to be forgiven. In this way, God and the world are linked in a mutual embrace by which the characters of both are fulfilled. The marriage of earth and heaven (Revelation 21-22) is nothing short of a profound and mystical interdependency; the recognition that the wholeness of one is in the gift of the other. This means that among the philosophers, Hegel and not Thomas Aquinas, has got much closer to the world of Scripture. God is Person, but also a process.

If God’s attempted redemption is the chief task of the Incarnation, what does this mean for the Church and Israel? The Assembly of God’s people has its own failures to confront to be sure, but if the episode at the Jordan means anything, then our role (those who are part of the divine story) is to continue God’s practice of repentance out in the world. The kernel of the Good News (announced by the angels at the Nativity) is that God reneges on a past in which the Creator was frequently at war with Creation. Thus in this new era of peace, those through whom God works, are charged with the duty of removing anguish from those who are excluded by so-called ‘religious authority’, by cultic violence, by tribalism as well as the pervasive idolatry of force. For the early Church this meant a conscientious opposition to war and disbanding of old distinctions between Jew and Gentile. And if we are to believe Jesus in the Gospel of John, more radical transformations are still to come: ‘I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear’ (NIV John 16:12). What tasks does God’s process of redemption mean for us today? Perhaps the most vexing of issue to trouble the Church in recent decades has been the recognition of same-sex relationships.  To some cynics, the affirmation of gay and lesbian people is a tale of feeble concession to secular trends. Yet, there is a another interpretation worth considering. Through the Spirit, God enters the cultural world to repair his own violence, personified in texts like Leviticus 18:22. By siding with the victims of stoning over the authorities who stone, by taking on the form of a broken and fallible man, divine fallibility becomes an instrument of repair and enrichment. God allows the body of Jesus to be wounded, so he can heal the wounded (in physical and cultural terms). To worship God as ‘suffering servant’ is not merely to acknowledge that God enters into our suffering, but also that God suffers because of the suffering the divine causes. Perhaps the world and God are on a path of co-redemption; each sustained by the progress of the other.

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5 thoughts on “Why Would God Repent? The Theology Behind a Remorseful Jesus (Matt. 3:13)

  1. O Thou who Man of baser earth didst make
    And e’en in Paradise devised the snake,
    For all the sin wherewith the face of Man
    Is blackened, Man’s forgiveness give – and take!

    Ruba’aiyat of Omar Khayyam

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