This post is going to be a bit more “devotional” (I guess) than what I normally write. I am not a priest, so I tend to avoid spiritual reflections, lest somebody think I know what I am talking about. (God help us!) But today is the Forefeast of Theophany. I was reading the Gospel for this morning (Luke 3:1-18) when I was particularly struck by the juxtapositional way Luke described the fiery preaching of John the Forerunner (aka John the Baptist). I have put some key phrases in bold to make the juxtaposition stand out.
He said therefore to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the multitudes asked him, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His 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.” So, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people.
I find I find it interesting that St. Luke calls these exhortations, “good news.” Most of us are not used to thinking of somebody exhorting us as good news. When someone tells us to share what we have with others, to do right, or to flee from the coming wrath— when they tell us that the son of Man is about to stick us with his winnowing fork, separating the wheat from the chaff (which will burn with an “unquenchable fire”), that does not sound like good news to me.
So what makes this good news? The Forerunner prepares the way for the Lord by calling people to repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. Judgment is coming. Be ready! It seems to me like that is our good news. It is good news because the “brood of vipers” have come to the one in the wilderness to repent. They are baptized, and the fruit they bear bears witness to their transformation. They share what they have. They do not cheat others. They are satisfied with their wages and do not attempt to gain more by dishonest means. The brood of vipers has recognized that they have no de facto blessing from God because they are children of Abraham. Heritage and affiliation do not spare us from judgment. Without such works of righteousness, without abandoning our selfishness and greed, we remain the sons and daughters of the serpent.
Matthew adds an interesting twist to Luke’s gospel. I was also intrigued because I remembered the twist Matthew adds to Luke’s gospel. In Luke, John the Forerunner merely calls “the multitude” a “brood of vipers.” In Matthew (chapter 3), the “brood of vipers” specifically refers to the religious establishment. The Pharisees and Sadducees are the serpents. The Sadducees are the priestly class who are the official mediators between God and the people in the temple. They are the keepers of the ritual. The Pharisees were learned folks — scholars (not unlike me) — eager to show others how wrong they were. I think perhaps Matthew focuses John’s ire on these two groups because they are the ones that the crowds would have considered most righteous. I am sure the Pharisees and Sadducees would have agreed. They were, after all, children of Abraham.
But John preached that God can work righteousness into those who do not deserve it, who are least worthy of it. Barren trees can bear fruit fit for repentance. Sinners can abandon greed. They (we) can stop hoarding what we have for fear that we will never have enough. God can turn stones into children of Abraham, even hardened hearts like mine. That is good news.