Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Fulfill All Righteousness


I've spent some time this week examining the phrase "fulfill all righteousness" that is found in Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 3:13-17). By itself, it's a funny phrase--what does it even mean?--but in the context of Jesus' baptism and the exchange he has with John the Baptizer, it seems even stranger. Here's what I mean.

Jesus comes to John in order to be baptized. But wait! Why would Jesus need to be baptized? John's baptism is a baptism of repentance. It's for people who want to return to God and belong to God by looking for the one who is to come and restore all things. The people who came to him were, above all else, confessing their sins (Matt. 3:6). In fact, when the Pharisees and Sadducees came out, John rebuked them, and, although it isn't perfectly clear from the text, it seems likely that John perceived that these religious leaders, who were presumed by themselves and others to be righteous, were not coming to forsake their sins. All together, it seems clear that John's baptism is about repentance and confession. Jesus, of course, doesn't need to confess any sins. He doesn't need repentance. Why would he be baptized?

John objects: "I need to be baptized by you." Matthew is the only gospel writer who recalls John's objection. He's the only one who felt it necessary to record John's hesitation. Matthew seems to be answering the presumed conundrum by addressing it through the objection and Jesus' reply. Why would Jesus need to be baptized? John didn't think so either. But Jesus had something in particular in mind.

Jesus responds, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." When John hears Jesus' explanation, he consents. It seems like there is something in Jesus' words about fulfilling all righteousness that helps John understand why Jesus would need to (or choose to) be baptized. But what in the world does "fulfill all righteousness" mean and why did that answer John's (and our) questions about why Jesus would be baptized?

Let's start with the Greek: Ἄφες ἄρτι, οὕτως γὰρ πρέπον ἐστὶν ἡμῖν πληρῶσαι πᾶσαν δικαιοσύνην. If you break down the words, you find that there's no way to argue against the traditional English translation: fulfill all righteousness. The whole sentence literally reads, "You let at present this; for behooving it is to us to make full collectively all justice/righteousness." I translate the last word as "justice/righteousness" because the word "righteousness" has become a jargony term that religious people like me throw around without really knowing what we're saying. The key words in question mean exactly "to fill up all righteousness," and it's hard to argue with typical translations. But, as much as I prefer a hyper-literal translation for biblical study, I think in this case a relaxed approach that interprets those words can help.

Almost all mainstream English translations (NIV, NRSV, ESV, RSV, KJV, CEB, WEB) give us "fulfill all righteousness." As I've said, you can't argue with it. But what does that mean? A few paraphrases or even looser than thought-for-thought translations shed some light on it. The Message (woe to the one who uses only the Message!) renders that sentence as "Do it. God’s work, putting things right all these centuries, is coming together right now in this baptism." Clearly, that's not an attempt to translate the text. There's no mention of centuries or time in the Greek text, but Peterson understands "all" to mean "for all time" or "all these centuries." More importantly, though, I think "God's work, putting things right" is a fair (but loose) rendering of "righteousness. Similarly, the CEV, which I like because it tries to take out all the religious jargon, has it as "For now this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do." In some ways, that is an even less accurate paraphrase than the Message, but it attempts to convey the same point: fulfilling all righteousness is about doing/accomplishing all that God wants us to do. But, in a broader sense, I think the CEV has open up a new possibility for my interpretation that's faithful to the Greek text and that addresses the question of why Jesus would be baptized.

Here's what I get from that. I've always understood John's objection and Jesus' reply as a conversation focused specifically and exclusively on Jesus' baptism--that somehow the act of Jesus being baptized is itself the fulfillment of all righteousness--the completion of God's perfect plan. But is that what the text means? Perhaps Jesus is simply saying, "It's right for all people like us to be part of the completion of God's work of making all things right." In other words, Jesus' baptism isn't the moment when all righteousness is fulfilled but another moment--another sign, act, gesture--that models for us what it means to do all that we're supposed to do. Sometimes the act itself is important not because of what it accomplishes but because of what it means for someone to have done it.

This Sunday, we'll hear the story of Jesus' baptism. Matthew seems to want us to ask the question why--or at least acknowledge it. But the answer he gives isn't necessarily found in a theological explanation of Jesus' baptism. Instead, it might be an example of discipleship--of faithful obedience for followers of Jesus. It is right for us to fulfill all righteousness. Who can argue with that?

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