Children of the Crowd or of the Spirit
Gospel: Luke 3:7-18
John said to the crowds (ὄχλοις) that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood (Γεννήματα) of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin 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. 9Even 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.’
10 And the crowds (ὄχλοις) asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ 11In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ 12Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ 13He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ 14Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the [There is no "the" in the Greek. It is a holy spirit] Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
19 But Herod the ruler, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Children of the Crowd or of the Spirit
Brood of vipers has such a force about it. It's like saying, "You bunch of snakes," with extra venom. So we tend to forget what a brood is. A brood is what Mark D Davis calls "spawn." The Greek word it translates is about being the children or the product of something. (eg TDNT 1, 685) This makes some sense of the harshness with which John greets all the people coming out to him when, although they are coming repentant for baptism, he still calls them a bunch of snakes! The statement is one of those highly condensed texts that we need to unpack: the crowds come assuming they are children of Abraham, but are really the children of poisonous snakes. In this light, repentance means to bear fruit, or we remain the children of what we were always the children: the serpent. (It is true that Genesis 3 contains a serpent, rather than Luke's viper. But Matthew 23:33 joins them together: "You snakes, you brood of vipers!" (ὄφεις γεννήματα ἐχιδνῶν lit. serpents brood-spawn of vipers.))
(A reader tells me that "the great New Testament translator and rabble rouser, Clarence Jordan translated the phrase you are talking about as "You Son of a snake," obviously making it sound like another name that would be very familiar to his readers, but which they might not want to use in polite company. He translated it that way just to make sure people today would feel the insulting power of the expression, and not let it get buried in proper Bible-ese." Thanks, Stan.)
The serpent is the one who plants the idea of rivalry into the life of adam; the root word of Eve is life, and the serpent is our primal fear about the gods, the fear that perhaps God is not our good creator, but may be winning over us, or living at our expense. It is not people who go out to John, but crowds. The crowd is adam— and us— at our most undifferentiated, at our most primitive. We are inclined to read crowds as a measure of success, pleased with how many go to a test match or to a church service, but the biblical crowd always has the stink of the mob about it. It is so with crowds today; anyone who has felt the moment a crowd becomes one organic being, and felt the flood of flood of fear overwhelm the brain stem, can never forget this. Crowds are an organism into which the brood-poison can flash flood. Crowds do not think; they are driven, infected, and poisonous. To be incautious in a crowd is to be unconscious of the poison, unconscious of our serpentine nature, and the primal urge to survive.
We are not natural children of Abraham, but children of the crowd, born into and formed by the serpentine crowd. To be a child of Abraham is to step out of the crowd. It is to learn something new. John's specific examples of the repentance that would enable this, the sharing of coats and food, being satisfied with wages, and neither stealing by corrupt taxes nor extorting by force, are calls to turn away from the actions of a person who is crowded; that is, stealing and corruption are what we do quite naturally to stay afloat in the crowd, to keep our heads above water; simply, to survive. The tribe— and most of us are tribal— is merely a local grouping of self-interest which seeks to keep the head of the group above water, despite the appearances of cooperation. (On reviewing this last sentence I see my imagery about keeping the head of the group above water also highlights an underlying purpose of many groups.) The tribe is still a crowd.
To choose repentance, to be thrust under the water, is an unnatural act. It is to be baptised. It is to go under in the crowd. Not in the sense of being submerged and subverted by the crowd; that is, becoming even more a child of the crowd, but in the sense of being drowned— of being a victim for the crowd. True repentance is to choose to be one of the losers who does not stay ahead of the mass. To repent is to turn away from winning.
Which is why it is so hard to be a child of Abraham: Who wants to die? We could say Abraham's awakening came with a call out of the ur-crowd, yet as his children we often succeed only in becoming one more self-interested crowd, seeking supremacy by defining ourselves as the holy ones. But only God is holy.
Davis says in his words for this week,
Some voices seem to emphasize that Abraham’s children are the elect, the chosen ones. Others seem to emphasize that to be chosen means to be poured out for the good of the whole world. The two are not necessarily exclusive, but it does seem to be a common prophetic refrain that being God’s chosen people requires faithful response and not just a reliance on God’s faithfulness.
It seems to me that we use the words "the elect" mostly to speak of unacknowledged privilege. Which means that to be the elect remains a survival mechanism of the crowd unless we learn that "to be chosen means to be poured out." And in the crowd, to be poured out always refers to blood. The cheering and rejoicing of the crowd always has a fragility to it, a flammability where it seems to me that the greater the apparent joy, the lower the flashpoint,[i] and the sooner that the venom of the brood flows.
Which brings us to burning. Paul Nuechterlein says
"Fire" signals mythological references to sacrificial violence for Girardians. When Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed in a rain of fire, for example, it’s likely that they were destroyed by a human enemy which burned them to the ground. But it gets mythologically reframed as divine fire from above because the nature of sacred violence is to justify human violence behind an aura of the sacred. Two of the occurrences of “fire” in Luke are of this type. Luke 17:29 speaks of Sodom; Luke 9:54 is an important passage where Jesus sets his sights on Jerusalem and skips a Samaritan town.
Do you see that Nuechterlein makes no reference here to the fire and burning which is mentioned within our reading? (3:9, 17) Why do we read metaphors based upon good agricultural practice as the vengeance of God? (We may say it is punishment we deserve, but it always has the undercurrent of vengeance.) The dried twigs of pruning and the chaff of the harvest make for good cooking; the unquenchable flash of chaff or dry grass in a small oven cooks wonderful flat bread.
My answer is that we read punishment and vengeance by God because we read the text with the eye of the crowd; fire is the terrifyingly effective method of killing which any crowd has close to hand. When we read God into the text, and if John himself imagines that the "one [who] is coming" is burning chaff which is people, then we move from the cleansing fire of a garden to crowd fire, from repentance to fire, from being made whole to making destruction and murder.
We are cleansed by God, pruned. When we burn others it is not cleansing, it is simply fire. It is sacrifice, that killing and burning by us which we say is in some way deserved, which we make holy, but which is the cover for our own violence. James Alison says we did not invent sacrifice (and its fire), sacrifice invented us.[ii] Fire is the worship of the crowd; everyone gathers at a fire; it fascinates us.
All this is not word-play with archaic ideas: Today, in slang, which especially betrays us because it is from the unconsidered immediacy of our speech, we say someone is burned when they are "thoroughly humiliated or insulted to the point where they cannot return with a comeback." We still burn people, cut them down, destroy them, in order to make ourselves feel whole; it enables us to be. I have witnessed such burning at Synod and Presbytery meetings, not to mention other places.
John understands the sort of actions repentance requires, but not what power repentance requires. Repentance will require the power to undergo a baptism of fire. It will be a true purification from violence, rather than the purification we think we achieve with violence against others. That is only a bleeding and pouring out of the venom of the crowd until it builds up again. The baptism of fire which is repentance is the "going under" in the fire of the crowd; it is a refusal to outdo the other in violence so that we stay afloat and ahead of the rest. This is a fearful thing.
And our fear of the fire of the crowd will not be doused by mere water. John's baptism cannot quench the violence of the crowd; it is only a sign. The violence of the crowd is quenched only by a holy spirit, it is drowned only in a different spirit from the spirit of the crowd. The different, holy, spirit frees us from the spirit of the crowd; that is it frees us from the essential nature of the crowd which is to sacrifice the one who seems different, even to the point of murder. The different spirit enables us to step out of the crowd and be formed by another person; the Christ. It is fashionable to speak of crowdsourcing as a way of gaining knowledge and wisdom; our problem is that we are all and completely crowdsourced, and only a different spirit can allow us to be different from and freed from the crowd, and formed by Christ.
God will gift us and the crowd will burn us. This is because it is judged by us; that is, it sees something of itself as it is through our refusal to join it. And so it thrusts us out. Wrath— and we are the source of wrath— begins.[iii]
This must include a slow eye-opening to our own crowdsourced privilege. Sometimes we learn a certain language of persecution with which we do not describe real persecution, but use as a deflection of anyone who points out our privilege. Repentance is to turn away from privilege and to seek to live in a way that all can live as comfortably and safely as we do. This eye-opening is itself a gift of the spirit, and if we refuse to allow ourselves to be burned, we are refusing the gift, refusing to be penitent. The beginning of such a refusal is that discounting of other's pain where we are sure only we are suffering.
So repentance is a desire to turn again to God which is always compromised because we are formed by the crowd and afraid of the crowd. It means we can scarcely see what it is from which we need to turn, and it means that, well trained in the ways of the crowd and its scapegoats, we know that what little we can see will draw the wrath of the crowd. Repentance is the beginning. And baptism in holy spirit is that healing of the heart which leads us on from this beginning despite the fear, and despite the fanning of flames by those fearful ones who decide, for their own safety, that we are chaff and not grain. Baptism in spirit is the undefinable, inexplicable gift which empowers us so that we find we have forgiven, we have changed, and we are different, but do not know how, or even quite when it was that this happened. And which gives us a clarity of vision and even a courage which we did not think was possible for us. Until that baptism, the chaff-fires we light and feed cannot be extinguished, for our very being is to burn others and to flee their attempts to burn us. This is because we are formed in burning; our formation as a human being is within a human culture which mediates everything with violence and the threat of violence, and which pretends that peace and victory can be found and enforced by violence.
In the end, our repentance is our longing. There is not much effective that we can do beyond our longing to be a different person, and our coming to the Christ for help. We try to change, we are frustrated, we fail, nothing changes, and then, little by little, we find we have been changed, and can go on.
Andrew Prior (2018)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
Also on One Man's Web
Luke 3:7-18 - In the Spirit (2016)
Luke 3:7-18 - A Baptism in Spirit? (2016)
Luke 3:7-18 - The spirit of the ethical cosmos (2016)
Luke 3:7-20 - Landing (2013)
Luke 3:7-18 - Worthy Fruit (2010)
Two articles by James Alison which particularly inform this post are We didn’t invent sacrifice, sacrifice invented us: unpacking Girard’s insight and Wrath and the gay question: on not being afraid, and its ecclesial shape. There is some extended quotation of the latter article in footnote iii.
[i] "Flashpoint of a liquid is the lowest temperature at which the vapour it produces will burn in air."
[ii] James Alison: Eventually, the group is able to move from repeating the violence of the all-against-all where the one is randomly designated in the midst of violence, to a more deliberate choosing of a substitute for that one before the violence becomes too dangerous. It is this second substitution, according to Girard, which marks the beginning of sacrifice: when we have become sufficiently adept at imitating our own imitative resolution of our own imitative violence, we are also able to ritualize it by substituting what we might now call a victim, whether human, or later, animal.
From this generative “moment” (one endlessly repeated over millennia) humans “domesticated” themselves, then enfolding other beasts into our ritual survival system. So some beasts, finding themselves treated as quasi-humans for sacrificial purposes, were eventually domesticated, and systems of sacrificial exchange became systems of agricultural development and survival.
Over time, the three pillars of archaic culture formed us: ritual gave us peaceful space for repetition, learning, and thus technology and development.
[1ii] James Alison: [John the Baptist] then goes on to compare what he is doing with what he imagines Jesus is going to do, which will be a Baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire:
His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Mt 3, 12)
And yet curiously, when Jesus does come, he doesn’t seem to act in the way that John thinks he’s going to. In fact he’s so little wrathful in his appearance that John, from prison, sends to ask:
Art thou he that is to come, or wait we for another? (Mt 11, 3)
Yet in fact Jesus does warn that the effect of his mission is going to be to produce wrath, in the passage I have already quoted to you. And in fact, he then gives himself to the sacrificial mechanism in a way which the Gospel writers point to as being the way proper to the great High Priest, and he becomes the lamb of sacrifice. In fact, he reverses the normal human sacrificial system which started with human sacrifice and then is later modified to work with animal substitutes. Jesus, by contrast, substitutes himself for the lamb, portions of whose body were handed out to the priests; and thus by putting a human back at the centre of the sacrificial system, he reveals it for what it is: a murder...
So, there is no wrath at all in what Jesus is doing. He understands perfectly well that there is no wrath in the Father, and yet that “wrath” is a very real anthropological reality, whose cup he will drink to its dregs. His Passion consists, in fact, of his moving slowly, obediently, and deliberately into the place of shame, the place of wrath, and doing so freely and without provoking it. However, from the perspective of the wrathful, that is, of all of us run by the mechanisms of identity building, peace building, unanimity building “over against” another, Jesus has done something terrible. Exactly as he warned. He has plunged us into irresoluble wrath. Because he has made it impossible for us ever really to believe in what we are doing when we sacrifice, when we shore up our social belonging against some other. All our desperate attempts to continue doing that are revealed to be what they are: just so much angry frustration, going nowhere at all, spinning the wheels of futility.
The reason is this: the moment we perceive that the one occupying the central space in our system of creating and shoring up meaning is actually innocent, actually gave himself to be in that space, then all our sacred mechanisms for shoring up law and order, sacred differences and so forth, are revealed to be the fruits of an enormous self-deception. The whole world of the sacred totters, tumbles, and falls if we see that this human being is just like us...
Now what is terrible about this is that it makes it impossible for us really to bring about with a good conscience any of the sacred resolutions, the sacrificial decisions which brought us, and bring all societies, comparative peace and order. The game is up. And so human desire, rivalry, competition, which had previously been kept in some sort of check by a system of prohibitions, rituals, sacrifices and myths, lest human groups collapse in perpetual and irresoluble mutual vengeance, can no longer be controlled in this way. This is the sense in which Jesus’ coming brings not peace to the earth, but a sword and division. All the sacred structures which hold groups together start to collapse, because desire has been unleashed. So the sacred bonds within families are weakened, different generations will be run by different worlds, give their loyalty to different and incompatible causes, the pattern of desire constantly shifting. All in fact will be afloat on a sea of wrath, because the traditional means to curb wrath, the creation by sacrifice of spaces of temporary peace within the group, has been undone forever. The only alternative is to undergo the forgiveness which comes from the lamb, and start to find oneself recreated from within by a peace which is not from this world, and involves learning how to resist the evil one by not resisting evil. This means: you effectively resist, have no part in, the structures and flows of desire which are synonymous with the prince of this world, that is to say with the world of wrath, only by refusing to acquire an identity over against evil-done-to you...