by Linda McMillan
“What are people saying?” he wanted to know.
I tried to dodge the question by saying that it didn’t matter, but the truth is that people were saying that he was probably going to jail. You don’t steal from the government and get away with it, not like he had anyway. It was important to him, though. He wanted to know what people were saying about him.
“I’m not a thief!” he said, and I guess he thought I’d believe that.
“I know, ” I replied. “But, you did steal…”
I was reminded of Jesus who had asked the same question to his friends, “What are people saying about me?” And, like my friend above, Jesus was not very happy with the answer.
“What about you?” Jesus finally asked, “What do you think?” And Peter gave him the answer he wanted: “You are the messiah.”
We all believe something about ourselves, and it’s helpful if others believe the same things about us, frustrating when they do not.
Everyone who went out to the wilderness to see John the Baptist believed something about themselves too. They may have believed that they were signing on for a new political order, preparing for a hopeful new regime. The scholarly Pharisees may have believed they were investigating a new expression of their lively faith. The Sadducees were more likely there in judgment, though we can’t know what they thought. They probably thought they were acting like Sadducees should act. Everybody believed something about themselves.
Like those who went out to see John, you probably believe certain things about yourself too. We all do. But, we are not always good at seeing ourselves clearly. Of those who went out to see John, almost all would have called themselves children of Abraham. None thought of themselves as children of vipers, yet that is exactly what John called them.
Fast forward a couple of millennia and you’ll see that we have all kinds of mental credentials we give ourselves. That is, we think certain things about ourselves, ascribe certain labels to ourselves based on chance occurrences and perceived attainments. Maybe you are a Cradle Episcopalian or a Daughter of the American Revolution, a sixth-generation Texan… the very best kind, clearly. Maybe you’ve taken on one or more identities that others have given you: social-justice Christian, scholar, thought leader, activist. Maybe you are merely emergent, which I think can mean a lot of things… the list is nearly endless and mainly harmless.
There is, however, a more harmful credentialing that goes on. Maybe you do this, maybe you don’t: It’s the way of thinking that quietly separates us out from the mass of humanity and demands that we are somehow special, even if nobody else sees it. It happens among those who have had “spiritual experiences,” those who have been “called,” the ones who consider themselves to be the true believers while everyone else is just warming the pew, riding the coat-tails of Abraham, the Sadducees, or their last spiritual achievement. It is also common among those who feel especially persecuted, those who have had more bad breaks than the rest, they too sometimes feel separated, even cast out. Special.
Like a slithering viper tucked away in a crevice, this sort of mental credentialing is dangerous precisely because we can’t see it. The crowd gathered around John in today’s reading was different in many ways, but John addressed them all equally in their need to reform their lives. “Reform, all of you… Reform!” Your Bible may say “repent,” and that’s another good translation. The reason I prefer “reform” is that repentance looks pretty much like non-repentance. You can’t see it. Just by looking, I can not tell whether or not anyone has repented in their heart. But, reform is more obvious. There are actions associated with reform.
Being somebody, or thinking that you are somebody, is not enough. Even convincing others that you’re somehow special won’t do it. John is calling all of us, equally, to reform. “Right now,” he says, “Those trees which don’t bear good fruit are being cut down and being thrown into a fire.” Don’t worry. This is not the fire of Hell, and if you feel you’re not adequately reformed yet, well, join the club…. But, we’re not going to H-E-double hockey sticks over it.
Here’s what is going on: We are being asked to examine our own lives to see what is real and what is a mirage. All that is imaginary — that is the images of specialness we project of who we think we are, or wish we were, or want others to think… all those images will be swept up and cast into a fire. That part of us which is real and true will be gathered up and cherished by God. The illusions are what get burned up, not you and me.
Today, we stand on the banks of The Jordan with a host of unmet friends and saints… people just like us, doing the best they can, hoping to be better than they are. All of us, looking forward to the coming kingdom. Let’s take this week to hear the voice of John for our generation: “Reform! Prepare! A new world is coming! Get ready.”
As we pray this morning for God to give us the grace to forsake our sins, let’s remember that all pretense and false bravado is ready for the fire too.
Linda McMillan lives in Yangzhong City, Jiangsu Province, China — Home of the pufferfish.
Image: Christ with winnowing fan By Daderot
– Own work
, Public Domain, Link
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Mark 8:27 … When traveling to the villages near Caesarea Philippi Jesus asked his friends what people were saying about him. In verse 28 he asked what they thought.
There is nothing in the written record, at least not that I know of, that identifies John The Baptist as an Essene. He does seem to have had some things in common with them, though. Most notably for today’s reading, he was baptizing. It was not very common otherwise, but the Essenes practiced immersive baptism. For them, it was not solely a rite of initiation. There’s no direct line between Essene baptism and our rite of baptism, but the fuzzy, winding, dotted line is there.
John is not the only one who referred to the religious establishment as a brood of vipers or children of vipers. Jesus called them that too: Matthew 12:34 and 23:33
The Hebrew word that we use for “repent” is teshuva. It means turning and it implies amendment of life, reparations when possible, real and visible change. Too often we think of repentance as some private act of the heart. It’s more ancient meaning in much broader.
Regarding this “winnowing fork,” I am going to go out on a limb and say that I think I know what that is, and it’s not a fork at all. The text really doesn’t support fork. In fact, the King James Version (The Authorized Version, as my grandmother called it) calls it a fan. I think I’ve seen something like what John is describing being used by farmers in Cambodia. It’s a multi-purpose tool which is used to carry away the chaff, and to move the wheat, and they fan the air with it to blow out the dust that invariably rises up from both activities. If you put a strap on it, you can carry something heavier, like salt. Multi-purpose. In this reading, the winnowing has been done. This is more about cleaning up the barn afterward.
Micah 6:8… He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.