A Most Serious Insult
Advent 2: 8 December
Hebrew Scripture: Isaiah 11:1-9, Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12
11A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
At last night's wedding reception the groom expressed deep emotions for his bride. It was the sort of language we don't much hear much from older Australian men. The MC had not long before expressed his own deep affection for the groom, including the comfort of having that accomplished sniper shooting over his head during a siege. The room of forty or so cops, christians, and sometimes hard drinkers appreciated all these sentiments.
I've known this bunch for twenty or so years; a mix of gentle, committed, passionate, hard-arsed and pragmatic people— mostly cops. We're of that age that's beaten around the edges, scarred and yet surprisingly gentle and optimistic about the nature of life; a paradoxical mix of love, aspirations, and failings.
My meetings with this crowd remind me how contextual our lives are, and how easy it is to miss the genuine presence of Spirit moving in a culture which is familiar and yet quite alien.
Last night was an opportune introduction to sitting down with Matthew this morning; Matthew who speaks of the love of God, the nearness of the kingdom, and yet has a fondness for fire that never ceases burning. Matthew lived the gospel in his context, clear eyed and passionate, constantly being converted to the kingdom of Heaven.
First up from Matthew is the understanding that fruit— results— is what counts before God; not polite piety! — "you brood of vipers" is something like what we would mean if we called them a "bunch of mother f******s."
Matthew lived in a world of resurgent Judaism after the destruction of the Temple, of Roman overlords, and of extreme poverty and uncertainty in life for the poor. He had inherited the hope of the first Christians and his Jewish forbears that God would change the world and set people free. The poetry of this week's Hebrew scripture reading would be made actual. A shoot would spring from the stump of Jesse (the father of the great king David) and "judge the poor with righteousness." (Isa 11:4)
Matthew interpreted the stories of Jesus for the church of his time, 50 years after the death of Jesus, twenty years after the destruction of the temple, and persecution under the emperor Domitian.
Matthew is not a tame gospel for those who like nice manners and a settled life. People burn. The language is less than polite. The radical edge of Jesus' teaching is in the very first verses with the inclusion of four morally tainted women in the genealogy. (Matt 1)
The levelling of the rich is implicit in the mountain sermon— Matthew's Ten Commandments— Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)
Matthew hates hypocrisy, especially among Christian leaders, and uses the failings of some of the leadership of his Jewish heritage as a savage object lesson for his own church.
I think of Matthew as a Christian sage disturbed primarily by developments inside the Christian community. He recalls harsh words of Jesus against Pharisees and other leaders, not because he is locked in combat with the Pharisaic leaders of Jamnia, but because he is probing the mind of Jesus regarding issues of authority and leadership. At the same time he addresses issues of discipleship and followership. [p. 20] (Matthew Smith quoted in Jensen's Preaching Matthew's Gospel.)
We have our own contexts and sensitivities, and blind spots. Will the essence of Jesus' message continue to convert us, or will the sniping fear of our own besiegements engulf the gospel and neuter it?
Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near: (3:2) We are talking about the essence of creation and its purpose. John is a precursor to Jesus, The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”(3:3) but he is no lightweight messenger. The quotation about straight paths is from Isaiah 40:3, heralding the return of a people from Exile and the establishment of God's Kingdom. John is announcing God's move in history, not just some minor alteration.
John is a genuine prophet. We understand the image of the prophet to which his clothing points, but it is the particular prophet that is important here:
Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8: "A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist." In addition, John, like Elijah during the drought, was dependent upon God for his food. Locusts and wild honey are not the products of human labor.
John, we are being told, is one of the great prophets. Later Matthew will say (11:11) "among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."
The people have responded appropriately by undergoing baptism which involved confessing their sin, but John responds with outrage to the religious leaders who come out.
Keener [A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew ] notes that John's baptism is like that when Gentiles convert to Judaism, but John is "treating his fellow Jews as if they were spiritually Gentiles, calling them to turn to God on the same terms they believed God demanded of Gentiles" [p. 121]. Should we be calling our active church members to a repentance that we would expect of converts?
If Stoffregen could ask this question of John, I suspect John may have said uncomplimentary things about his own church leadership's lack of the repentance we expect of converts.
Vipers were reputed to eat their way out of their own mother, killing her.
Malina and Rohrbaught (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) write about this phrase: "'Brood of vipers' (literally, 'offspring of snakes,' 'snake bastards') would be as insulting a label as one could imagine in a society in which social standing and the honor bound up with it are fundamentally a function of birth. ... Keener [says] Matthew may allude to a fairly widespread ancient view that vipers were mother killers. In the fifth century B.C. Herodotus declared that new-born Arabian vipers chewed their way out of their mothers' wombs, killing their mothers in the process. (Stoffregen)
It is an insult, and more importantly, a judgement for which we have no polite equivalent, hence my suggestion of mother*****s. If we are offended by this word, perhaps we could seek out our own most deadly, deeply outraged, and almost poisonous to ourselves insult which we would apply to someone whose behaviour we found not only appalling, but dangerous to our society. As I discussed this understanding of the vipers saying with my wife she said, "So mother****** doesn't really cover it," and she's right! "Brood of vipers," as a condemnation, has layers of poison. As she said, "We can match John for crudity, but our insults lack his sophistication"; we underestimate the seriousness of life, and the dangers Matthew saw for his church.
Pharisees were people whose piety and faithfulness to the Law was legendary. For all their faults, the Sadducees managed the real-politic that gave Judaism a level of autonomy from Rome. But the good people of our congregations and the faithful servants at Synod or in the Diocesan Office are motherf****** unless they also bear fruit that befits repentance. In reality he is talking about us— the serious Christians, and the preachers and the bishops!
We should notice that what John has said here in Chapter 3, is repeated by Jesus himself in Chapter 23: You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell? (23:33) Their hypocrisy is spelled out in devastating detail, as is the result: See, your house is left to you, desolate. (23:38) Is he talking to us?
But John, and Matthew, are clear that John is only the harbinger of someone greater: 11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
Speaking of insults, we may remember the deep insult paid President George Bush by an Iraqi journalist who threw his shoe at him during a press conference: I am not worthy to carry his sandals!
We love this promised baptism with/in Spirit. It was held out to me as a younger person almost as a completion of conversion, a second blessing. Whilst some were crass enough to imply baptism in Spirit was a sign one had "arrived" as a Christian, others understood Jesus brought us opportunity for a deep immersion in God; a thorough going conversion and cleansing and reorienting of life, which is sometimes accompanied by experiences of overwhelming joy.
The unquenchable fire of winnowing received rather less emphasis. Some of us were embarrassed by its crudity; we found something primitive and unchristian in the idea of a loving God who burns. The view that was rather less bothered by this image; which sometimes exhibited a certain schadenfreude about those bound for judgement, and was confident it was not included... well, perhaps it should read John's proclamation more carefully. For John also says this:
8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Jesus as our Saviour”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Faith. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
John is again echoed by Jesus at the end of the Gospel, if not in such a direct way as with the reference to vipers. The stones in that story are called sheep. The chaff is called goats. (See Matthew 25:31-46)
Those of us who (rightly) see the limitations in Matthew's imagery about the need for burning to cleanse the church might return to the police wedding. One of these blokes talked with me about a siege he was in; guns, body armour... the lot. He hadn't been praying during this operation, he said, and I had one of those too few moments when you realise you have a clear insight. I suggested praying was a good way to get shot, or to cause someone else to get shot.
What counted was a good cop who had been so shaped by the Gospel and was so converted that in all the inhumanity of a deadly siege he would retain his humanity without even thinking about it.
We all of us live in context. Sometimes it is grubby and blood spilling, dehumanising, even evil. What will save us is not our piety, and remembering our piety. It is whether we have been bearing fruit. For then we will recognise the Christ among us, even in those we must oppose.
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