John the Baptist said to the Pharisees and Sadducees:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do 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.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 3:7-9 – April 24, 2012)
You’ve got to hand it to John the Baptizer! He sure knows how to warm up and relate to a crowd. ~ What is John saying by greeting his audience thus? Is John speaking to the Pharisees and the Sadducees at all, or rather to the rest of the crowd? Or, more likely, is Matthew (who here is repeating a line found also in Luke and who later puts these same words into Jesus’ mouth) saying something to us, his later readers? ~ I grew up with snakes. In the desert wilderness of southern Nevada, pit vipers (in the form of rattlesnakes) were common even our backyards. Rattlesnakes can be dangerous, but they are also cowards. A rattler prefers to remain motionless, hoping not to be noticed. If you come too close and corner it, it will rattle a warning and stand its ground. But rattlesnakes never pursue people; they would rather flee than fight. They prefer to “flee the wrath to come”; make them aware that you’re coming and they will slither away as quickly as they can. ~ The image Matthew’s Baptizer puts before us may be that of a fearful group scattering in all directions. On the other hand, when snakes are congregated in a large group where they cannot flee, they are very dangerous. It is noteworthy that John says, “You brood of vipers” not simply “You vipers”. To me, the word brood suggests a bunch of snakes all tangled up together (as in the picture accompanying this text). When rattlers are congregated like this, they can’t and don’t flee – maybe it’s a phenomenon of “safety in numbers” – they stick together in a writhing, deadly mass. ~ Who are the vipers today? Back then, it was the religious leadership and not just those of one “party”. John addressed himself to both Pharisees and Sadducees, both the “right” and the “left” of his day. Could it be that today’s “brood of vipers” are the leaders of the churches? Could it (in my own denominational tradition) be all of the bishops and leaders of the Anglican Communion who have spent too much time tangled up, hissing and rattling at each other about issues which truly are adiaphora to the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Could it be that John’s complaint was not that the Sadducees and the Pharisees were corrupt or evil, but that they were distracted and wasting their time and effort, that his ire was worked up because rather than be about the work of God they were too busy wrangling with one another over that which was extraneous and immaterial to that work? ~ John contrasts the “brood of vipers” to the “brood of Abraham”, reminding his listeners that God could “from these stones . . . raise up children to Abraham.” God was able to raise up in the church of Christ a brood for Abraham who were not of the lineage of the Jews. Has that brood, however, slipped into the same irrelevant behavior?