True confession: I can’t help but think of what has become one of my favorite church-related memes, when I hear today’s Gospel. It’s a picture of a man portraying a very wild-eyed, rough hewn version of John the Baptist, and beneath him, the caption reads, “Happy Advent, you brood of vipers!” John the Baptist calling the Pharisees and Sadducees a brood of vipers is probably one of the greatest epithets ever spoken without uttering a swear word, but let’s look at what triggered his outburst.
John was preaching and teaching and baptizing, yet at the same time, we see him continually pointing over his shoulder as the story unfolds after his outburst. “I’m not the one to worship, The one that is coming after me is the one to whom you want to pay attention.” What John says immediately AFTER his outburst is the critical hinge: “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” As we all know, the Pharisees were experts in the law. What was it in their minds at the moment that it might have felt the law had failed them–or they felt they had failed the law–that led them to want to be baptized with the masses that day? The Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife. What was happening in real time that caused them to feel a need to connect with God in an entirely different way?
We have no way of knowing, but my sense is that John was emphasizing their role as community leaders. It wasn’t so much about their individual need for repentance (although I’m certain they had one), it was about the old adage “The leader sets the tone.” What does it say about community when the leaders are scrambling for the exits? He’s suggesting, I believe, that he knows they have the potential to righteousness by virtue of their leadership…and that a life well led in serving God is the soil in which fruit worthy of repentance can be easily grown. People will see it, and people will respond favorably. The leader sets the tone.
Although John clearly gave them an earful, he doesn’t say “I’m not going to baptize you.” In fact, as the passage continues with “I baptize you…” it assumes the Pharisees and Sadducees are still there.
Although repentance is clearly an individual act where we turn away from sin, anxiety, and fear, and towards God, it is also a community act. When we repent, we create ripples. They spread. But sometimes, what we need to repent is not what we think we did to upset God, but our inability to share our burdens in community or what we’ve been blind to in community…and God will keep offering new life, whether that is a call to repentance, a call to baptism, a call to our Eucharistic table,, or simply a call to live more fully in Christ.
What fruit can you grow in your own life, that calls you and others to settle into God’s grace that it’s enough and believe in the possibility that it’s worthy of repentance?
Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri as a Priest Associate at Church of the Good Shepherd and Chaplain of the Community of St. Brigid, both in Town and Country, MO.