You can attract more flies with a teaspoon of sugar than with a barrel of vinegar,” says a popular maxim. Yet in today’s Gospel, John the Baptist takes a very harsh approach. He is confrontational and uncompromising. There is nothing gentle or alluring about him. He demands repentance—urgently! And people flocked to him: “Jerusalem, all Judea and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.” What did they find so attractive about John and his message?
One thing that could have had appeal was the desert locale where John was baptizing. There is a mysterious beauty to the desert, where inner noise can be calmed and the senses are heightened, making one better able to discern priorities in the stark presence of the Holy One.
Another attractive characteristic of John was his wholehearted commitment to God’s reign and the Coming One who would usher it in. When a person lives so completely and authentically what he or she proclaims, that witness is very compelling. Others are drawn not just to admire such a one, but to examine their own lives and to follow suit in whatever way possible. Although John’s message at first seems off-putting, its effectiveness rested on the fact that it was not anger that fueled him but a profound love of God and a passion to help everyone be ready for the imminent arrival of the one who is to come.
John had no patience, however, for those who were not sincere in their quest. It is startling that at the very first appearance in the Gospel of the Pharisees and scribes, John slings insults at them, calling them a “brood of vipers.” As the Gospel progresses, we find that Pharisees and scribes are cast by Matthew as hypocrites and as those who lie in wait to trap Jesus, like snakes coiled to spring at any false move. John exposes their poisonous intent. If they were authentic seekers, that would be visible in their “good fruit.”
What “good fruit” looks like is described by Isaiah in today’s first reading. All creatures and the whole of creation exist in peaceful harmony. There is justice for all, especially for those most afflicted. Predators and prey dwell together in irenic oneness. Vulnerable little ones have no fear. Snakes, like those John denounces, no longer attack. In Isaiah’s day it was thought that the new Davidic king, who would sprout from the stump of the conquered house of Jesse, would be the one to bring about this peaceable kingdom. John the Baptist points to Jesus as the one who brings it to fulfillment. Leaders alone, however, cannot by their faithfulness and wisdom establish the peaceable kingdom; their followers must also advance it.
There are serious and immediate consequences if the call to repentance is not heeded. John points out that any tree that does not produce fruit is cut down at the root and thrown into the fire. Such strong language is meant to get our attention. Like a mother who suddenly shouts out to keep her child from burning himself on a hot stove, a fiery prophet speaks in shocking ways to startle us into action. Today’s readings invite us to find a desert spot where we can sink our roots deeply in contemplative oneness with the One Who Comes, extend our branches in welcome to those with whom we have been at odds, and let the Spirit pollinate us for an abundant harvest of fruitful goodness.