January 8, 2023

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord—the first Sunday after Epiphany. January 6 is the Feast of Epiphany. In the western church, it is remembered as the day of the coming of the Wise Men who arrived as a part of our procession this morning. In the East, January 6 is Christmas. So for our Orthodox friends,  this is their third day of Christmas. 

When Jesus went from Galilee to John at the Jordan River to be baptized, Saint Matthew says that John resisted, “saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’”[1]

Please note that this baptism is a communal experience. “It is proper for us,” said Jesus. Plural. Us. This is something we do together. People used to do “private baptisms,” referring to baptisms that were not done at public services. But there’s nothing private about it—regardless of how many people are present. Baptism is always about “us.”

Jesus then says that the focus of baptism is “righteousness.” “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” By going through with this baptism in the Jordan, Jesus and John are placing themselves squarely in God’s company, because righteousness is both an attribute of God and any human activity that is  pleasing to God.

The Hebrew word for righteousness (tzedek or tzedekah) is used over 500 times in the Hebrew Bible and the Greek (dikaios) appears more than 200 times in the Christian scriptures. 

In the Book of Job, God’s hero is introduced to us as a person who is “perfect” in righteousness.[2] This doesn’t mean that Job is sinless. “Perfect” in this sense means that righteousness permeates every relationship of his life. Righteousness is a matter of relationships—with God, with things, with other people.

Matthew affirms in this baptism text that Jesus is the Son of God and he connects the text to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. Matthew says:

When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”[3]

The first hearers of this passage, late first century Jews, would have immediately recognized the words as the opening to Isaiah’s Song of the Suffering Servant that is our first reading for today. 

“Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.”[4]

“The Servant picture fills in the Son of God picture, affecting the way that Jesus will fulfill his mission.”[5] The work or purpose of the Son of God, the Servant of God, is “to fulfill all righteousness” and “to bring forth justice to the nations.”

Those two words express the same content. A God of ‘justice and righteousness’ is a God who does what is just by doing what is right and does what is right by doing what is just.”[6]

Justice is so often used in to mean punishment. We use the phrase, “bring to justice,” meaning “to be arrested, tried, convicted and sent to prison.” We have a criminal justice system that is a punishment system

Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan says that in biblical usage,

 . . . the primary meaning of ‘justice’ is not retributive, but distributive. To be just is to distribute everything fairly. The primary meaning of ‘justice’ is equitable distribution of whatever you have in mind—even if that is retribution or punishment.

What the biblical tradition is imagining is a well-run home, household, or family farm. If you walked into one, how would you judge the householder? Are the fields well tended? Are the animals properly provisioned? Are the buildings adequately maintained? Are the children and dependents well fed, clothed, and sheltered? Are the sick given special care? Are the responsibilities and returns apportioned fairly? Do all have enough? Especially that: Do all have enough? Or, to the contrary, do some have far too little while others have far too much?

It is that vision of the well-run household, of the home fairly, equitably, and justly administered, that the biblical tradition applies to God. God is the Householder of the world house, and all those preceding questions must be repeated on a global and cosmic scale. Do all God’s children have enough? If not—and the biblical answer is “not”—how must things change so that all God’s people have a fair, equitable, and just proportion of God’s world? [7]

St. Matthew is saying that when Jesus was baptized, Jesus and John the Baptist defined Jesus’ ministry as establishing on this earth the Righteousness and Justice of God—distributive justice. This is the ministry, the platform, the mission, the economics of Jesus. Economics comes from the Greek word oikonomia, meaning “management of a household.” 

When we were baptized,  we were welcomed into the household of God. But we should beware! This is a communal act. It’s a commitment to work for the welfare of the whole household of God. It includes more than just those with whom we’re comfortable, but all the people of God: the stranger, the immigrant, the enemy, the poor, the gay, the straight, the transgendered, the sick, the mentally ill. It includes the wealthy, the destitute, the middle class. In the words of the baptismal covenant, it demands that we recognize the dignity of every human being.

This is the radical thing about baptism! In a culture that invites us to go it alone, to achieve on our own, to accumulate for ourselves, to be unique and powerful and independent—Jesus invites us to join his household where we and everyone else will have enough to meet their needs. It is a communitarian household, a household of social and economic distributive justice. And most of all, we are called by God, as all the baptized are called by God, to work for this righteousness with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength.

Welcome to this baptism, this ministry. May the God of justice and righteousness be with you always and shine forth from your life each and every day.


[1] Matthew 3:13-15

[2] Job 1:1

[3] Matthew 3:16-17

[4] Isaiah 42:1

[5] The New IDB, Volume 8, p. 161

[6] Crossan, The Greatest Prayer, p. 3

[7] Ibid, p. 2-3

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