Matthew's account of the baptism of Jesus, the great feast we celebrate today, places the events at the Jordan River in a very Jewish context. Matthew's gospel was written especially for the Jews, both converts from Judaism and those not yet converted, to convince them that Jesus was the Messiah they longed for. And this is shown in the way he describes the baptism of Christ performed by John.
The text we read today is preceded in today's Gospel by an account of the Baptist's ministry, in which he lambastes the religious leaders of Israel, the Pharisees and Sadducees, calling them "breed of vipers". In Luke's version, John says this "to those who came to be baptized."in general. By restricting this rebuke to the religious elite of Israel, Matthew approaches Christ's baptism from the point of view of the renewal of Israel (whereas Luke has a more universal vision).
Jesus will later make it clear, in the Sermon on the Mount (not surprisingly, in Matthew's version), that he had come "to give fullness". (in Greek: plerosai) to the law (Mt 5:17). And in Matthew's account, when John resists baptizing him, our Lord insists using exactly the same word: "It is fitting that we should thus fulfill (plerosai) all justice." (Mt 3:15).
"Justice" (dikaiosuné) is a key word throughout the Bible. It will be widely used by St. Paul. At best it can refer to holy, "righteous" men, like St. Joseph (Mt 1:19). But it can also be misunderstood if we think that we can be pleasing to God by our own works and ritual offerings (Lk 18:11-12). Fundamentally, it refers to fidelity to God's law. Jesus is "the righteous one" par excellence (Acts 22:14). Righteousness was often linked to the elimination of sin: sacrifices were offered to God to atone for sins, to be in a righteous state before him. That was what the Old Testament sacrifices sought, without success, in Paul's opinion. Jesus insists on being baptized by John to make it clear that, although he was sinless, he is entering into human sin, as he enters into water, to be covered or "soaked" in it. He is going to take our sins upon himself. As Isaiah prophesies in his visions of the "man of sorrows," foreseeing the suffering Messiah, Jesus, "my servant will justify many". (Is 53:11). He is truly righteous, free from sin, in a state of righteousness before God (He is God), and can make us righteous and free from sin.
Understanding Matthew's account of baptism in its Jewish context gives us great hope. Jesus begins his public ministry with this remarkable episode, in which the Trinity is revealed and Jesus is declared the Son of God. But the precise focus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament hopes. What Israel's numerous sacrifices could not achieve, Jesus will achieve: the reconciliation of humanity with the heavenly Father.
Homily on the readings of the Solemnity of the Baptism of the Lord (A)
The priest Luis Herrera Campo offers its nanomiliaa small one-minute reflection for these readings.