That “brood of vipers” piece really gets all the attention in this gospel, doesn’t it? Truly. Once you heard it, did you really hear anything else that John the Baptist said?
This is a finger-shaking kind of a text, from a finger-shaking kind of a prophet. And I have to say that in my life as a daughter, a student, and a priest, I don’t tend to learn best by people shaking their finger at me. And I have to say that in my life as a mother, a teacher, and a priest, finger-shaking (from the pulpit or anywhere else) doesn’t tend to work all that well.
It’s too bad that this is how the passage begins, because we’re probably many of us inclined to stop listening. But if we can get past it, and instead find a way to step into this message, there’s rich learning here to find.
First, notice that the crowds are coming to John – not out of curiosity, or to provoke, or be entertained…they’re not looking for him to do a party trick. The people in the crowds are coming to him because they want to be baptized. They want to follow the same God that John follows. And John’s response to them, after that first part about the vipers, is the question: “Who told you to flee from the wrath that is to come?” Who told you to run away from the hard parts? He says. And there’s a disconnect here, because it seems to me that this crowd isn’t running away. They’re coming toward him, toward the water, toward the faith that they don’t really even know about yet. “Bear fruit that is worthy of repentance,” he says, and then more scary finger-shaking stuff about children from stones and the ax at the root and the tree in the fire.
But the people stay put. They don’t run away, at least not from this wrath as it comes, as he calls them names. The people in these crowds don’t leave when John the Baptist tells them the frightening things that will happen if they don’t do what God wants them to do. Instead, they ask him: “Well, what should we do?”
And this is where it gets interesting. Because, given all the rhetoric from a finger-shaking prophet up to this point, I would envision his response being some call to seemingly impossible feats of strength and discipline in which people prove themselves worthy to belong among a very faithful, likely very small, group of followers. “Go run up that mountain barefoot over all the sharp rocks,” I could imagine John saying. Or “give away all your food and everything else you own and then leave everything familiar,” I could imagine (someone else will say something that sounds like that in passages still to come…). I expect John to tell the people to do hard things, to prove they really mean it. And then maybe a little bit more about vipers and an ax and some fire. And a little more finger-shaking, just to underscore it all.
But John doesn’t say any of that. “Do you have two coats?” he asks. “Give one of them to somebody who doesn’t have any coats at all.” “Do you have more food than you need for dinner tonight? Give some of that food to someone who is hungry.” And when the tax collectors come to him, Jewish people whose job it is to take money from other Jews and give it to the Romans who are living in their land, John doesn’t tell those tax collectors to quit their jobs. He says that they should do that work justly. And the same thing is true with the soldiers. He doesn’t tell them to lay down their swords and leave, only not to use their power to threaten or steal.
So step back with me, and look at this story again. People come to John to be baptized. He says some things that might cause us to stop listening, and interlaced in that are a couple of really important pieces: don’t run away from the things that are difficult; do works that bear good fruit. And when the people ask what those good works are, he names things that every single one of us is capable of doing: share your extra coat with someone who is cold, give food you don’t need to people who are hungry. Don’t cheat. Don’t bully. Don’t steal. Be satisfied with what is fair.
A few years ago I read a book called Switch. It was written by Chip and Dan Heath, two brothers who spent time researching change and the processes that work most often leading to healthy and lasting change. Not surprisingly, finger-shaking was not a common attribute for positive change. What did surprise me, though, was that complex solutions were not high on the list, either.
We live in a time when problems are so complex and convoluted, so long-developed over time that only a similarly complex and long-developed solution to whatever it is would seem to make sense. Poverty. Terrorism. Hunger. Gun violence. Bigotry. These are big problems. And if I’m listening to them with an ear to what I expect John the Baptist to say, the solution to any part of any one of those seems like it would need to involve difficulty, and suffering, and lots and lots of syllables.
The thing is, though, that the findings of this book were that the simple solutions were the solutions that took – simple…not always easy. And they came, not from white papers and conferences with panels of titled experts, but from people close to the issue, people who talked to each other.
It makes me wonder, once we get past his finger-shaking brood-of-vipers business, what the words of John the Baptist might have to offer us today, right here:
· Don’t run away from situations that are difficult
· Do the kind of work that bears good fruit…things like:
o Giving your extra coat away to a person who’s cold
o Feeding hungry people with the food you don’t need
o Being just in your dealings
o Not using your authority to intimidate or hurt people
The problems we face into as a society, as a world, in this moment, are problems on a grand scale. And maybe it’s easier to shake our finger at the magnitude and enormity of it all, and then turn and flee from the wrath it brings. After all, we have plenty of coats. We have more food than we need for just today. We have jobs and roles that afford us a certain power and recognition and, seemingly, security.
But I wonder, in the simplicity that lies at the heart of this gospel, what might happen on an individual scale if we did what John compelled the people in that crowd to do. I wonder what might happen, if we all did those very simple, very do-able things. And I wonder what the outcome might be, if we did them on a grand scale – by church and community and country.
It sounds maybe too simple, and I don’t mean to underplay the significance of the problems of this world. But when I think about the most frightening things that I see on the news every day, what seems absent to me is a human response. Fractiousness and isolation have taken too much hold. And on a large scale and on a small scale, people are hungry. They’re cold. On a large scale and on a small scale, people have been bullied, and stolen from, and made to be afraid.
And a scary-looking, locust-eating, hairshirt-wearing prophet shakes his finger, and tells us to repent of all that. He tells us to turn ourselves from turning away in the ways our own fear might cause us to. He’s preparing us, for a day when the valleys will be exalted and the hills will be brought low, and a pathway carved out in the desert. He’s preparing us to prepare the way of the Lord. John reminds us that we have enough to share, that we have enough to live with decency and justice, and that we have enough to extend those gifts to others who deserve and should have them, but don’t – and probably won’t – until we learn to share what we have. He’s preparing us again and still, together with the people in those crowds, for baptism.
“I baptize you with water,” John says. “But one who is mightier than I is coming.”