John the Baptist is a bracing sort of fellow, eye-opening, and not in the slap some Brut on the face kind of way. (In another blog post we will have to explore how it is that Brut has made a comeback – before you say anything, it is related to Advent, after all, as those of us who grew up buying it for our fathers and older brothers for Christmas can attest!) He is preparing the way for the Messiah, as all four of the Gospels confirm, and in Matthew he calls out, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2). It is not just the call to repentance and the fact that he is preparing the way for the Messiah that makes him so bracing and invigorating, though that, I think, would be sufficient, but the way he challenges his compatriots to grasp the nearness, severity and significance of his message.
Verses 5-6 reveal only the great response to his message and John’s response to the outpouring of repentance: “Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” In their confession and baptism the people “make his paths straight” by readying themselves for the Messiah’s arrival. All are well, who repent well, it seems.
Then who should appear, but Pharisees and Sadducees? All of a sudden the tune of John the Baptist changes, it becomes discordant, not plaintive and moving. “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? Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (3:7-8). Hello, to you, too, John the Baptist!
Why does he turn on them so rapidly? Does it matter who warned them to flee from the wrath to come? Does not their coming to John the Baptist indicate that they desire to bear fruit worthy of repentance? The whole scene seems incomplete; we seem to have only a part of the picture, a partial view of the diorama. Frankly, as the scene is shown to us, it seems harsh. Why should not John welcome their repentance? There is something missing: maybe there is a look of judgment on their faces, or a knowing smirk, the sense of “Repentance, we don’t need your stinkin’ repentance!”
John warns them bluntly: “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. Even now the ax 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” (3:9-10). It is likely that John is referring to the 12 stones that are described in Joshua 4 which indicated that Israel had come to safety in the Promised Land. The issue for John is presumption, that the Pharisees and Sadducees should not think that because they are privileged members of the people of God that they have stamped their tickets to glory. Stones may be raised up to people of God – and might even Gentiles be? – so the issue is behavior not privileged position.
The consequences are dire for those who feel that the kingdom of heaven is theirs by right not as a matter of repentance and behavior - “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” This is precisely John’s task, that is, to warn and prepare, and it does not help to pretend that the stakes are not eternal. This why the bracing wake-up call is necessary. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His 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” (3:11-12). This image moves us from stones to the common harvest imagery of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic thought. But be wary of equating Pharisees and Sadducees with chaff – they might have repented and borne good fruit. It’s our turn to prepare for the coming of the Messiah; and we ought not to presume.
John W. Martens
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