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Baptism, Righteousness, and the War on Poverty: A 2014 Epiphany

Matthew 3:13-17, A Reflection by Roger Nam

On January 8, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson delivered a landmark State of the Union address, inaugurating the War on Poverty. The speech preceded a variety of legislative actions that addressed the enormous levels of poverty of the 1960s and explicitly linked the crisis to racial and ideological tensions. Regardless of one’s own political leanings, the ideals of fairness and justice expressed within President Johnson’s speech appeal broadly to Christian communities of faith both then and now.

So fifty years later, how has America executed President Johnson’s declaration of an “unconditional war on poverty”? In 1964, about 19 percent of Americans lived in poverty according to a threshold established by the Department of Health and Human Services. Within a few years, the ratio steadily decreased to about 11 percent, but then has been holding at around 15 percent to the present day.

According to the US Census, over 46 million people in the US still live under the poverty threshold despite government supplemental measures. The poverty line for a family of four averages at $23,494 with cost-of-living adjustments.

Remarkably, the number of people living in poverty is actually rising despite overall economic growth. At best, we are still fighting this war.

This week’s commemoration of Epiphany marks a suitable point of reflection on the ongoing fight against poverty. The opening of Matthew 3 portrays John the Baptist as a courageous prophet. When Jesus approaches John for baptism, his refusal is both puzzling and surprising. John understands baptism as an act of repentance, hardly fitting the innocence of the Messiah. But Jesus adds a new dimension to baptism by declaring to John, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15). The response satisfies John, who proceeds to perform the baptism, leading to the appearance of God and divine approval of Jesus of Nazareth.

The extended narrative in Matthew’s account forces us to consider the significance of righteousness as a foundation for the beginnings of Jesus’ ministry. Righteousness is one of those biblical terms with elusive meaning. The New Testament usages of “righteousness” associate the term with fair and equitable dealings. Righteousness leads to integrity, virtue, piety, and godliness. It reflects concepts of generosity, while ascertaining values of goodness and justice.

While Christian orthodoxy often correlates righteousness to an inner holiness in the context of salvation, the New Testament understandings of righteousness do not separate inner spirituality from outward action. Rather, Jesus integrates his holiness with acts of compassion for the disenfranchised. Jesus embodies this righteousness immediately after the baptism through his response to temptation (Matthew 4), his foundational teaching (Matthew 5-7), his ensuing ministry and Passion. This complexity behind the concept of righteousness provides a fruitful source of introspection as we observe the Epiphany and take time to consider a ministry of righteousness that deeply integrates our inner piety with our external service.

Such a call to fulfill all righteousness necessitates a response to our nation’s poverty crisis. Often we associate our own contribution to the fight against poverty with isolated actions: donations for the homeless, offering of resources to non-profits and volunteering of our limited time to local programs. Whereas these are all commendable responses, by themselves they do not represent a complete biblical vision of righteousness. Jesus’ ministry was much more encompassing. It was not limited to timeslots in his schedule, but his righteousness permeated all that he did.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a "war on poverty in America"

In this sense, Matthew 3:13-17 calls us to live out righteousness in a much more integrative way than arbitrary handouts or following the tweets of OXFAM. We are to prepare and eat every meal in righteousness. We add righteousness to the mundane questions of budget, cost and delivery for every purchase and investment. Considerations of righteousness transform our uncomfortable confrontations with homeless individuals to divine encounters with fellow humans created in the image of God.

I do not believe that righteousness has much to do with guilt and shame over our own affluence. Rather, the call to fulfill our righteousness includes us recognizing our own material privilege, then accordingly striving to follow Jesus’ path in regard to the least among us. In this season of Epiphany, we can remember that in ushering in this ministry of righteousness, God has appeared and given divine approval. 

Study Questions

1. What were the socio-economic conditions of your family of origin in 1964? How does this narrative impact your own views on poverty?

2. In what ways, does technology make it easier for communities of faith to address poverty today compared to 1964?

3. How much of your own efforts to combat poverty is driven by guilt or social pressure? How would an integrative righteousness transform your own values over poverty?

Additional Resources

Day, Keri. Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church and the Struggle to Thrive in America. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2012.

Hinze, Christine Firer. “Economic Recession, Work and Solidarity.” Theological Studies 72 (2011): 150-169.

Horsely, Richard. Covenant Economics: A Biblical Vision of Justice for All. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. Sharing Possessions: What Faith Demands. 2d ed. Minneapolis: Eerdmans, 2011.


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