It’s difficult, in an exaggerated understatement, to envision “bearing fruit” when, to quote a secular hymn of the season, “the weather outside is frightful.”
About the only thing that is being produced currently is an abundance of snow, as in, “let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.” And this year parts of the U.S. are facing below zero temperatures.
John the Baptist’s proclamation about “bearing fruit” directly precedes Jesus’ baptism – celebrated this weekend on “Baptism of the Lord Sunday” – which seems, at the very least, ill-timed. Focus for now should be on what benefits might come with hibernation.
In Sunday’s text, Jesus appears with hoards of others from the surrounding region to hear and respond to John the Baptist’s call for the confession of and repentance from sins.
Jesus coming to confess his sins? And entering the baptismal waters as a sign of his repentance from them?
That seems boldly to contradict those claims of non-Gospel Scriptures, to say nothing of the weight of the Christian tradition about Jesus’ sinlessness.
To be sure, the assertions about the absence of sin in Jesus prior to his baptism can be explained logically, that is to say theo-logically, based on the need to have a sinless agent of God – or of the divine reality itself – to serve as the savior of the world through the sacrificial death of an innocent person.
In Matthew (not in Mark and Luke) there is an attempted explanation provided for the requirement that Jesus be baptized, set in the context of John initially objecting to baptizing Jesus because he (John) needs to be baptized by Jesus.
But Jesus assures John that in order “to fulfill all righteousness” his baptism by John ought to proceed.
It appears Jesus is saying something like: “Look, John, this may seem strange, you baptizing me, but let’s get on with it so we can dot all the “i’s and cross all the “t”s that have to do with righteousness.”
But does that provide sufficient explanation for a sinless Jesus being baptized if, indeed, the baptism is “proper” and necessary in order to “fulfill all righteousness”?
Establishing righteousness, after all, has to do with setting things “right” that aren’t right, whether that be intrapersonally and interpersonally or socially, economically and politically in terms of justice.
Here, in Matthew, Jesus seems to be saying that his baptism is something that can’t be avoided; that it is, in fact, necessary and proper for righteousness and justice to be achieved.
If that is the case – and textually it certainly seems to be – then maybe we need to look more expansively at what is happening in this baptismal drama.
For example, what if the baptism of Jesus is related primarily to the earlier reference to “bearing fruit”?
This statement occurs as John the Baptist excoriates the Pharisees and Sadducees for coming to the Jordan River with all the others to be made righteous, when, according to John, they (the Pharisees and Sadducees) are a crucial source of Israel’s unrighteousness and injustice.
These are the “brood of vipers” who will do anything possible to avoid “the wrath to come,” including making appeals to their Abrahamic heritage and going through the motions of the repentance and restoration ritual of baptism.
John the Baptist sees through such conniving ways and means, telling the Pharisees and Sadducees instead “to bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
A closer reading reveals that the essential function of baptism is the restoration or creation of righteousness and justice – bearing the fruit of righteousness and justice – intrapersonally and interpersonally as well as socially, economically and politically.
The confession of and repentance from sins in baptism is only a means to that primary goal of righteousness and justice.
The baptism of Jesus, then, has primarily to do with being committed and commissioned to bearing the fruit of righteousness and justice, which is exactly what Matthew reports Jesus saying.
And that’s why, after the baptism of Jesus, the heavens open and the Spirit of God descends upon him, proclaiming that he is the beloved with whom God is well pleased.
Irrespective of the season or the conditions of climate, therefore, the baptism of Jesus has everything to do with our own commitment to bearing the fruit of righteousness and justice now – if, that is, we are to follow in his way.
Larry Greenfield is executive minister for the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago. He also serves as editor and theologian-in-residence for The Common Good Network.