Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Fulfill All Righteousness?


My family and I went out of town for a few days around the new year, and I didn't look at any of my friends' and colleagues' blogs yesterday, but I hope that sometime between now and Sunday someone will tackle "fulfill all righteousness" because in Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 3:13-17) it sticks out like a sore thumb.

It's the First Sunday after the Epiphany, which means we're celebrating Jesus' baptism. Since it's Year A in the lectionary cycle, we get to hear Matthew's version of this encounter between cousins. Jesus comes to the River Jordan to be baptized by John, and John says to him, "I need to be baptized by you--not the other way around." And Jesus responds, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." When John hears those words, he nods and says something like, "Whatever you say, Boss." But the rest of us hear it and say, "Excuse me? What did you say?"

It is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus being baptized by John was a necessary part of fulfilling all righteousness. In those three words, the whole significance of this encounter seems to be held, and it's worth the preacher spending a little time unpacking those words before climbing into the pulpit on Sunday.

Righteousness, of course, is a noun that means "rightstandingness." Righteous people are those who are OK in God's eyes--just fine, copacetic, balanced. Righteousness is that state of right-standing. In that way, the Greek word "δικαιοσύνη" also means "justice" or "justness." This is the "everything-is-just-the-way-it-is-supposed-to-be" state that God would have us inhabit. There are lots of other passages about that righteousness and Jesus' role in establishing it on earth, and they should come to mind here (e.g. "the poor have good news preached to them"), but that still leaves us with the question of why Jesus' baptism has anything to do with it.

A comparison of other translations helps us make common, contemporary sense of that phrase "fulfill all righteousness," but most translations fail to help us understand its theological significance in words that make sense to us. The NRSV, ESV, NIV, and CEB all use "fulfill all righteousness." The CEV aims for readability at the loss of theological significance: "For now this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do." Yes, we understand that this is what God wants us to do, but how and why is the baptism related? At least "fulfills all righteousness" helps us understand that the act of baptism is somehow the culmination of that righteousness-brining work.

And then there's The Message. Because it is not a translation but a paraphrase, I only use The Message when I'm stuck or when I want to ruffle some feathers. This time, however, the authors of The Message get it right: "But Jesus insisted. 'Do it. God's work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism.' So John did it."

That's perfect! Righteousness is God's work--divine action--of setting everything right. God's work is to lift up the downtrodden, rescue the oppressed, set the prisoner free, and bring good news to the poor. God's work is to set the world back the way God created it to be. And The Message helps us see that AND see that Jesus' baptism is the "coming together" of all that work.

Now, the preacher needs to ask how. How is Jesus' baptism the "coming together" of God's work of righteousness? That's a post for tomorrow and a sermon for Sunday.

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