I say this often, but I’m constantly amazed at how Biblical texts that are so familiar can be seen in new and different ways. I mean, we hear the story of JBap at least three Sundays out of the year – that’s nearly 6% of all Sundays – and yet, this morning, as I read, once again, Matthew’s telling of the John the Baptist story, I realized something new.
Because it is so familiar, it is easy to read this story quickly and to let your mind fill in the blanks. In my head, this is the story of all of Judea and Jerusalem coming to hear John preach and to be baptized by him for the forgiveness of their sins. Maybe I’m conflating the story from Matthew 11, when Jesus asks the disciples of JBap what they were looking for when they decided to follow John, but I’ve always heard John’s strong rebuke, “You brood of vipers” as being directed at everyone who came out to the Jordan to see him. I’ve read this to be John’s call to repentance for all who came, but especially toward those who came for the circus; to see John’s wild clothes and to do what everybody else was doing.
In reality, the rebuke isn’t directed at the crowd generally, but specifically at the Pharisees and Sadducees who came from Jerusalem. Now, this can get dicey if one reads this text with the lens of 2,000 years of Christian anti-Semitism, but even there, we miss the point. It isn’t John decrying the Jewish establishment, as if the Christian version of institutional religion is somehow more pure, but rather, John’s words are directed at real people, specific people, who have corollaries in contemporary society. John pointedly and directly called the religious leaders of his day “a brood of vipers.” He accused them of making following God’s commandments comfortable for themselves, but rigorous for their adherents. He dared to suggest that their way of leading God’s people wasn’t producing real fruit.
As a minister of the Gospel, it’d be easy for me to brush this harsh critique of religious leadership as directed toward folks like Joel Osteen or TD Jakes, but when Matthew says that many Pharisees and Sadducees came to see JBap, he undermines my ability to make this a niche market rebuke. Rather, it seems that John’s words were directed at all who would dare take on the mantel of religious leadership in a community. Dare I say, these words are directed toward me; toward you, dear reader; and toward anyone, lay or ordained, or steps out in faith to lead the people of God toward a deeper relationship with God.
Our titles and degrees will not save us and our ministries. Rather, those who dare to lead will be judged based on the kind of fruit their leadership produces. Rather than seducing people in with easy, cultural, moral therapeutic Christianity, John’s rebuke invites Christian leaders to do the hard work of naming sin for what it is, calling people to repentance and amendment of life, and motivating them to be about the good works of building the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
Telling people what they want to hear is a whole lot easier (and more lucrative), but it’s not the work to which ministers of the Gospel are truly called. No, we are called to help folks do the hard work of sorting the wheat from the chaff in their own lives so that when the Lord Jesus returns, he might be met with joy rather than fear and sorrow.