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Why did Jesus feel the need to repent?

I recently attended a church service, where the Gospel reading was the story of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan river. The preacher noted that John proclaimed that his baptism was a sign of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and, in passing, commented that because Jesus was without sin he would have had no need of John’s baptism.  He is not the first to be puzzled as to why Jesus felt the need to be baptised by John: Matthew in his Gospel was equally puzzled. I understand the confusion: if you are thinking of Jesus as the Cosmic Christ or the Risen Lord then you might well think of him as being without sin. [see my article ‘Which Jesus’] But it seems clear that the man Jesus of Nazareth did feel the need for John’s baptism as a sign of his repentance, and I wonder what it was that he needed to repent of?  The Gospels don’t tell us, so ultimately we’ll never know, but I find myself intrigued by the question. 

Jesus often taught people by telling them stories. I wonder where he got the ideas for his stories? Some appear to be derived from images in the Old Testament, like those about a vineyard. Others seem to have been drawn from everyday life in Galilee, like those about a sower, the giving of a party, a shepherd searching for a lost sheep, or the gathering of crops at harvest.  But in my experience the best stories are often derived from personal experience and I wonder if some of Jesus’ stories might have been?  The story of his baptism, which only he could have told, must be one but I wonder if there might be more?  I am thinking of two other stories that stand out for me, because they are seem more focused and detailed than the rest. 

I remember, many years ago, reading the suggestion that the story of The Good Samaritan’ may have had its origins in an event that happened to Jesus himself: that he had been attacked and beaten up while on the road between Jericho and Jerusalem, and that it was his experience of being ignored by religious people whom he’d expected to help him, and looked after by a man whom he’d viewed as his enemy. that caused him to rethink his views about who his neighbour is.  The suggestion was that eventually he told the story in order to challenge the conventional view about who was one’s neighbour, hoping that what had changed him might well change others too. As indeed it has. 

I find that suggestion very plausible. Not least because there is at least one other story in the Gospels that tells of how a personal experience persuaded Jesus to change his mind about a conventionally held view. I refer to the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman who begged for Jesus to heal her child and whom Jesus initially refused to help because she was not a Jew, until her persistence changed his mind. Again it was a foreigner who was the catalyst, and in this case a woman.  The Gospels tell us that Jesus was often surprised by the faith shown by foreigners, and even remarked that they showed more faith than his fellow Jews. It seems that God taught him things through them that he hadn’t learnt from his Jewish inheritance. 

It was while I was pondering the preacher’s words about Jesus having no need for John’s baptism of repentance, that I found myself drawn to his story of ‘The Prodigal Son’, and suddenly the lights came on. Again it’s a story with quite a bit of detail, it has no obvious Old Testament antecedents, and its unlikely to have been an everyday occurrence in Palestine.  Might this also be a story from Jesus’ own experience?  Might it be that he had left home as a young man taking with him his share of his inheritance?, that he subsequently squandered it and so had to undertake the ritually unclean work of looking after pigs owned by a non Jew, before coming to his senses and returning to his father where to his surprise he found forgiveness and a celebratory welcome he had not anticipated?  Clearly this is conjecture, and we’ll never know what the origins of this story actually were. But again it does seem plausible to me, and it would make sense of a number of other things as well. 

[1]. Crucially, it could explain why Jesus felt the need for the repentance offered by John’s baptism. He had received his father’s forgiveness, but his behaviour had resulted in him being ritually unclean and he no doubt felt the need for God’s forgiveness too. 

[2]. The words that God spoke to him at his baptism ‘you are my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased’ could easily be imagined as the gist of what the father said to the returning prodigal. The message is likely to have been the same.  If so, it would be overwhelmingly powerful for Jesus to be received and welcomed by God in exactly the way his earthly father had received him. It could be the reason why he spoke of God as ‘Abba’, a Jewish child’s familiar name for its father.  No wonder he had to go away by himself into the wilderness to ponder the implications of this. Was what he had learnt to be true for him also true for others too?  And if so did his Heavenly Father want him to share what he’d learnt ? Was not this the essence of the Good News of God’s Kingdom that he left the wilderness to preach about? 

[3]. It could lie behind Jesus insistence that we sort out our personal relationship problems before asking for God’s forgiveness, because that had been his experience. 

[4]. It might explain why Jesus consistently sought out those whose life experience left them as outsiders in the Jewish community, and his concern, in God’s name, to include them. By his behaviour he had made himself an outsider, but he had then found himself graciously accepted, included and affirmed. 

[5]. It might lie behind his realisation that humans are not made unclean in God’s sight by external matters like working with pigs, but only by what lies in the human heart. 

[6]. It might lie behind the visit Jesus made to the country of the Gerasenes, where he cured a man and sent the evil spirits that had possessed him into a herd of pigs. Maybe this was where Jesus went when he left home, maybe he knew this herd of pigs, these people, and this man who was possessed. Maybe that was why he felt the need to go there? 

[7]. It might also in part explain those scenes in the Gospels when Jesus’ family clearly think that he’s not in his right mind and want to take him away, and which lead to him disowning them, ‘Who are my mother and brothers?’  If Jesus had behaved like the prodigal son it is easy to see that this might not have gone down well with the rest of his family, whatever his father might have thought, and especially his brothers. And if he then capped that by claiming a religious experience at his baptism, in which God also delighted in him as His beloved Son, you can see how they might have been concerned. 

The more I ponder the above, the more I sense that there is truth in it, and if that’s correct, several things seem to follow: 

[1]. It rehabilitates Joseph from being a peripheral figure in Jesus’ story, to being a vital & central one. Certainly as important as Mary. 

[2]. Jesus whole life-story becomes a powerful example of the truth that ‘nothing can separate us from the Love of God’, not even what looks like failure and humiliation.  In that it prefigures Jesus’ death and resurrection.  

[3]. It becomes not just a piece of abstract theological truth but the direct consequence of Jesus’ lived experience.   

[4]. It encourages us to treat our own experience as one of the most powerful ways through which God can and does speak to us.   

[5]. More: an acknowledged sense of failure has the potential to be the best thing that’s happened to us. And beware those who seems to have no acknowledged sense of failure. 

As I’ve said, this is all conjecture. There are alternative hypothesises which could explain all the points I’ve made, but they’re conjecture too. We will never know the truth of it.  But the question of why Jesus went to be baptised by John remains intriguing, and surely merits exploration, not least because it challenges many of our assumptions about Jesus.   So I apply the criteria ‘If this is true does it enhance and deepen my understanding of Jesus? And does it deepen and enhance my own relationship with God? For me the answer is ‘Yes’ to both, and so I intuitively sense that there is truth in it.   

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for these thoughts, Henry. I love the idea that some of the parables have come from Jesus’ personal experience. Makes a lot of sense to me.

  2. One thing your conjectures do for me, Henry, is to highlight the humanity of Jesus. It brings into focus Jesus’ identification with the ‘human condition’ and reminds us that Jesus of Nazareth was not so heavenly minded that he was no earthly good in terms of experiencing the situations and circumstances we all find ourselves in from time to time. I am also attracted by the thought that the Godself ‘speaks’ in and through all of our life experiences with the desire of transforming us ever more into the likeness of Christ. A transformation that allows us to look in the mirror of our own existence and recognise that we, too, are beloved.

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