Grasping a nettle

Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ [Or is at hand] 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 [Or in] 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 [Or in] 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.’

Grasping a nettle
John brings a warning which Matthew understood to be fundamentally good news. Where and how we find it good news will be a test of our character, and the reading out of our own judgement.

The good news is from Isaiah 40.

Comfort, O comfort my people,
   says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
   and cry to her
that she has served her term,
   that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
   double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
   and all people shall see it together,
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

I quote passage a little more fully than Matthew because is not merely proof texting. Yes, he is saying that the word of Isaiah is coming true, but even more, he is saying that if we want to understand the significance of John and of Jesus, we need to understand Isaiah from whom he understands that the time for the glory of the Lord to be revealed is now and that Jesus is the one. The kingdom has come near. It is arriving. The return from our exile has begun.

Nonetheless, John is presented to us dressed as Elijah. We know he is to be heard through the lens of Elijah because when the King Ahaziah interrogates his messengers who failed to ask Baal-zebub the god of Ekron about his future health he is told someone sent them back.

7He said to them, ‘What sort of man was he who came to meet you and told you these things?’ 8They answered him, ‘A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.’ He said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.’  (2 Kings 1:7-8)

In my ear of my mind, I always hear him add: I might have known!

In the ensuing confrontation Elijah calls down the fire of God from heaven and one hundred men are killed.  Elijah's coming again is an occasion full of threat. His appearance heralds "the great and terrible day of the Lord" with which Malachi ends.

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse... Malachi 4:5-6

It was a general understanding in Jesus' day that Elijah would come just before the Messiah.

Yet the text is full of hope for Israel. Davies says

If in 2.3 'all Jerusalem'; is associated with the wicked Herod, and if in all 27.25 'all the people'  say, 'His blood be upon us and our children,' in 3.5-6 'Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan' go out to John the Baptist. (Matthew pp40, my emphasis)

They are baptised by him, confessing their sins. Israel responds well to John's message. As Davies goes on to say, "In Matthew the Pharisees are... the real opponents of Jesus... His words about them evince [show clearly] a special, living concern." (pp41) Matthew is not anti-Jewish. As we say, "Everyone in this story is a Jew." To find otherwise is to import our own anti-Semitism.

From the context of Isaiah, and in the context of the great stories of Israel's return from the first exile in Egypt and entering the Promised Land from the wilderness via the Jordan, to be baptised is to enter the Promised Land again. Matthew is describing a time of hope for the nation.

"But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism" John attacked them with a considered insult; that is, words carefully chosen to carry a message.  As snakes, vipers remembers the serpent of Genesis 3; serpents lie. [In our bible study, one of the particpants said that the serpent also misrepresents God.] But the serpent in Genesis is translated into the Greek as ophis. (ὄφις) These folk are called ἐχιδνῶν from echidna, a viper. This is the same word as the poisonous snake which was said to have bitten Paul on Malta, leading to great surprise when he did not die; there is something poisonous here. (cf Acts 28) And the translation of gennēmata as brood captures something of the generative overtones of the word. They are not only spawn, they spawn.

John asks them who warned them to flee the wrath to come and admonishes them to bear fruit that befits repentance. He clearly discerns something fake and poisonous about the repentance of these people. Both Davies and NT Wright see an image of vipers "scurrying before dry scrub about to ignite," (I've used Davies' phrase pp41) a sort of self-interest rather than a real repentance. Davies says

The Greek word [for repentance] literally means 'change of mind'; but it stands for a Hebrew word [shuv] which means "turn around', 'return', and a complete change in conduct, not just a change of opinion, is involved." (pp42)

What is a repentance which is a poisonous, breeding lie? Perhaps it's a religious expression or adherance which is a kind of cheap insurance policy rather than a real change; a dependence upon being born a Jew, for example, or lip service to the right words.  This approach to the worship of God immediately places conditions upon salvation. It implies some are 'in, and some are 'out', that people are accepted or excluded by God, whereas Loader notes that John's call to repentance

put negatively, [means] there are no favourites: everyone must be immersed in the waters; everyone must join the transformation. Turned into positive terms, this also means: no one is to be written off as inferior or worthless. Every person matters to God.

Perhaps in our world an equivalent viperous repentance is prosperity theology, which is also exclusive.  Prosperity theology is not merely a preaching and expectation of increased material riches.  That is only its crassest form, and many folk see the fallacy of those expectations. Prosperity theology, understood more deeply, is the expectation that adherence to a particular theology, the acceptance of the right set of doctrines, will ensure an easy rescue and relief from our sins; that is I will "live long and prosper." It is the old Deuteronomic theology of reward and punishment which had little understanding of oppression and privilege and plain luck. This understanding is as toxic as a viper because rather than being a means of prosperity,

Baptism and repentance are means of death... Repentance is the terrible discovery that I live under a death sentence, and even worse, that I must say yes to this condemnation to death.

This was Helmut Gollwitzer preaching, in Germany, immediately after the Kristallnacht pogrom in 1938 in which he saw the corporate responsibility and complicity of all German people. He said to his congregation,

What do we expect God to do if we come to him now singing, reading our bibles, praying, preaching and confessing our sins as if we can really count on his being here and on all this being more than empty religious activity? ...

What if we just sat here for an entire hour without saying a word, no singing, no speaking, just preparing ourselves silently for God’s punishment, which we have already earned? (Here)

Bob Cornwall brought this sermon to my notice, and adds another dimension to shallow viperous repentance. Deliberately echoing the Pharisee of Luke 18 he says  

Thank God I’m not like those Pharisees and Sadducees who are the target of John’s rant.  Do you ever read this passage in that way, excluding yourself from being the target?  It’s not easy listening to such words.  This is especially true of Americans like me, who are taught from early on that we’re special; perhaps even God’s new chosen people.  Early on our national ancestors adopted the ideas of John Locke, accepting as fact that we are blank slates (tabula rasa), upon which our experiences can build.  You can be whatever you wish.  We became individualists, rejecting criticism and judgment from others – including God.  ...  In our individualism we fail to see our own complicity in structures and systems that oppress.  Slavery was a long time ago, so let’s get over it.  The holocaust that consumed the majority of Native Americans and marginalized the rest – that’s old history. 

Repentance is more than an individual thing. God spoke to the nation. John spoke to Israel; all of Jerusalem, Judea and the region along the Jordan. We are all complicit. When he says Repent and bear fruit he is speaking to the plural, the group and the community— it's in the Greek text,  not the individual. Individualism is a poisonous lie because if we are a nation of individuals rather than a a necessarily interconnected community, we are able to silo off our repentance; that is, our commitment to God can be separated from commitment to the community around us. Toni Hassan's recent article in Eureka Street outlines this quite well.

She notes

the stubborn words and actions of a government that rants against 'indulgent and selfish practices' that threaten the mining sector and 'radical' activists of narrow dogma that 'pit cities against regional Australia'. Like many others, I am cranky about lost opportunity to act on the science, and about policies that condemn those living with poverty (those who will be hardest hit) and sacrifice our clean air. Surely, a man of faith wouldn't act this way?

His government (with an increasingly politicised media unable to help resolve an important national conversation) continues to support, with massive subsidies, extractive and exploitative industries that undeniably warm the planet and threaten the natural environment that underpins our life support systems.

How can this be a legitimate perspective as a publicly-confessing Christian? Why would this shepherd [cf Ezekial 34] not want to move all of us to safer ground? How is it that, presumably, reading and grappling with the same gospel teachings, we come up with such different ways of seeing and knowing? Many might quickly conclude he has no genuine faith or that he is simply beholden to the minerals lobby, Australia's NRA, but that's too easy and dismissive. Where does the truth lie?

I think Morrison is undoubtedly genuine in his Christian faith. I think the problem that Hassan sees is exactly as one of the folk she spoke to described it:

'The answer is found in the reality that Christianity intersects with culture and becomes different forms of missiology — faith lived out in society,' he said.

Our prime minister's own brand of Christian faith — conservative Pentecostalism of the prosperity gospel vintage — is 'a theology that gained new momentum in the modern era with a society increasingly focused on the individual, offering a privatised God and personal salvation. It's a post-enlightenment theology that silos politics, the environment and economics as if they are not subject to the same overarching values.' [I have added the comma after the individual, for clarity.]

Finally we come to fire. We recognise the evil of burning; the torching of villages, the more than 250 synagogues burned during Kristallnacht, the firebombing of Dresden, the use of napalm upon innocent children. Such fire does not sit well with the vision of a God of love.  Yet many folk of biblical times looked forward to the burning of the wicked with anticipation and self-righteousness, and were thus offering themselves to one more iteration of the myth of redemptive violence, as we still do so often today.

The fact that we can say this, the fact that we can even see that "righteous violence" is just violence, that firebombing Dresden is no different, in essence, to burning synagogues or gassing children— this insight shows how much Jesus has done his work in us. This is a revelation of the Spirit of God, even if almost any meeting of Synod shows we have only partially learned this lesson.

John did not see any of this. Indeed, John began to wonder if Jesus was the one to come— because of the lack of fire, one suspects.

To get the full impact of what Davies says as he seeks to explain what John was saying, we need to know two things which are not apparent from the English translations of our bible. The first is that spirit and breath and wind tend to be the one word in both Greek (pneuma) and Hebrew (ruach.) The other is that John does not say, in Greek, that he will baptise in the Holy Spirit and fire. There is no the. The text says he will baptise in holy spirit and fire. We import the Holy Spirit into the text, which is to import a whole lot of post-crucifixion meaning to which John had no access.

Davies lists two passages in Isaiah which

Reveal the possibilities for joining fire and spirit in prophecies about judgement. In Isa 30.27-8, the name of the Lord comes from afar, burning with anger and rising in thick smoke; his tongue is like a devouring fire; and his breath or spirit is like an overflowing stream reaching up to the neck to sift the nations with the sieve of destruction... Isa 4 prophesies that the Lord will cleanse Zion and Jerusalem by a spirit of judgement and by a spirit of burning. Even more telling is 4 Ezra 13.8-11, in which a stream of fire and a flame of breath issue from the Messiah's mouth as judgement.

He concludes

Here is precisely the background requisite for interpreting John's talk of baptism in Spirit and in fire. Fire and Spirit are not two things but one — 'fiery breath'. At the boundary of the new age, all will pass through the fiery breath of God, a stream which will purify the righteous and destroy the unrighteous. (Davies pp 44-45)

What do we do with the violence in the text if we have been blessed to see that God does not burn, that God is not violent at all, and that God rejects no one? And how does that sit with the very clear sense we have of our complicity in the violence of the world if we have been blessed to see that we can't silo off our personal salvation from our actions as part of the wider culture in whose violence we are complicit, like it or not.

One approach is to distinguish between the way of John and the way of Jesus, well expressed by John Petty.

Matthew, more than any other gospel, is concerned about "righteousness"-- repentance, right action, bearing fruit--and the punishment that awaits those who don't get it or do it. 

At the same time, Matthew undermines that same position as often as he affirms it.  Only Matthew tells the story of the Laborers in the Vineyard with its radical vision of universal equality.

John represents one side of the argument, the punishment that awaits those who don't get it right.  This is a judgment that Matthew calls us to take seriously.  This judgment, however, is trumped--and soundly trumped--by the ministry of Jesus wherein the unloveable are loved, the outcasts accepted, and sinners party with God. 

Jesus' reply to John's doubts in Chapter 11 is one of those undermining moments in the gospel. The sign of the Messiah is not fire and judgement but that

the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’ (Matthew 11:5-6)

But finally, however we look at it, there is a nettle to grasp, for even Jesus expected burning or some equivalent. In the last story of the gospel before his crucifixion— his last parting word— he says, "these will go away into eternal punishment."

Either, there is no death in God1, and death is what we do; it is the result of our violence. And, God is not violent, and all sins are forgiven, and we are all loved until we are able to accept the forgiveness God gives us,
Or, some sins cannot be forgiven, and there is eternal punishment. Which means God is violent, but God uses better violence than us, and the illogicality that violence can cleanse violence is a mistake on our part.

Traditionally, most Christians have accepted the latter alternative. It's familiar in its use of the texts. It sounds orthodox. It doesn't upset received readings of the Bible.

But it is morally repugnant. It means God is just another Caesar who does not care for the abused child who never heard the gospel and was bound to be a destructive force in society because of their trauma and conditioning. God doesn't care about that; God is subject to a law of justice that cannot make allowance for that.

I would rather join the opposition.

Here is the nettle. Will I trust that Jesus Messiah really was fully human and that even he did not grasp what his sacrifice would teach us about the nature of God? Will I trust that he really did expect us to "do greater works than these?" (John 14:2) Or will I make an idol of Matthew's Jesus instead of being open to his spirit?

I began by saying how we find John's proclamation good news will be a test of our character and the reading of our own judgement. Judgement, in the end, is to fall short of that compassion of the Christ which is the image of the very love of God. Human fear and violence is our perverse response to our perceptions of falling short; I am violent to you because I am afraid that you are threat to me (and perhaps you are) or afraid that you do not love me as fully as I wish to be loved (which may be because I wish to be placed above you.) When we desire violence, even from God— when we think violence is deserved by some people, we are still falling short. This desire is the reading out of our own judgement.

Andrew Prior (2019)

Also on One Man's Web
Matthew 3:1-12 - The Good News of Repentance (2016)
Matthew 3:1-11 - John the Baptist at Uluru (2014)
Matthew 3:1-12 - A most serious insult (2014)
Matthew 3:1-11 - The Tapestry of Repentance (2011)

1. There is no death in God. God has nothing to do with death, and for that reason facts which are obvious to us, like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob having been long dead at the time of Moses, simply do not exist for God. Let's put this another way: for us "being alive" means "not being dead"; it's a reality which is circumscribed by its opposite. For God this is simply not the case. For God being alive has nothing to do with death, and cannot even be contrasted with death. (Raising Abel, James Alison p38)

Elijah: 2 Kings 1:8 8They answered him, ‘A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.’ He said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.’
Zech 13:4 4On that day the prophets will be ashamed, every one, of their visions when they prophesy; they will not put on a hairy mantle in order to deceive, 5but each of them will say, ‘I am no prophet, I am a tiller of the soil; for the land has been my possession since my youth.
Mal 4:5-6 5 Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.
Matthew 11 13For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; 14and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.
Matthew 17:10 10And the disciples asked him, ‘Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ 11He replied, ‘Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; 12but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.’ 13Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.
Jesus and vipers
In 12:34, he says to the Pharisees, “You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” And again, in Matthew 23:33 to the Scribes and Pharisees, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” This last reference is particularly biting because Jesus goes on to say, “Therefore I send you prophets, sages, and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify.”
Stones: Isa 51:1-2 Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness,
   you that seek the Lord.
Look to the rock from which you were hewn,
   and to the quarry from which you were dug.
2 Look to Abraham your father
   and to Sarah who bore you;
for he was but one when I called him,
   but I blessed him and made him many.
3 For the Lord will comfort Zion;
   he will comfort all her waste places,
and will make her wilderness like Eden,
   her desert like the garden of the Lord;
joy and gladness will be found in her,
   thanksgiving and the voice of song.

Some Greek Notes
Mark D Davis points out a play on words in verse 8: Therefore bear fruit worthy of the repentance... The word áxion [translated as worthy in NRSV], Davis notes, "has several potential meanings: '1) weighing, having weight, having the weight of another thing of like value, worth as much  2) befitting, congruous, corresponding to a thing  3) of one who has merited anything worthy.'"  But then in verse 10 "we transliterate ἀξίνη  axinē as axe... but you can see that it implies that the measure of worthiness is being applied..."

Odd Bits of Interest
1. That unquenchable fire is  pyrì  asbéstōi.  (πυρὶ  ἀσβέστῳ).

  1. The Australian echidnas are named after Echidna, a creature from Greek mythology which was half-woman, half-snake, because those spiky little beasts were perceived to have qualities of both mammals and reptiles. (Wikipedia) So when we transliterate the viper, which is ἐχιδνα in Greek and get echidna, it's not just a coincidence! Who knew?

Purple Prose
Niebuhr:  “I am not surprised that most prophets were itinerant. Many budding prophets over time become harmless parish priests.” To what extent have we tamed our wilderness? Have forgotten that it is from the wilderness that we preach? Have decided in favor of blandness instead of boldness, harmlessness instead of audaciousness, evenness instead of fearlessness. (Quoted by Karoline Lewis)

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!




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