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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Descriptions—Matthew 3:1-12 (Amy Allen)

The words that we use to describe ourselves and others are significant. John the Baptist’s description of the Pharisees and the Sadducees as a ‘Brood of Vipers’ lies at the heart of a powerful prophetic critique.

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 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.

7 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. 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. 10 Even now the axe 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.

11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 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.’

Words matter. The words we use to describe one another and ourselves help to shape and define who we are in relation to one another.

People used the word ‘prophet’ to describe John the Baptist. Some even likened him to the great prophet Elijah. John himself fit this definition of a prophet by the clothes he wore and the foods he ate (Matthew 3:4). And, as a prophet, when the religious leaders of his day came to threaten the baptism with which he was preparing people to receive the Messiah, John spoke out.

John is well-described by the familiar phrase, as one who speaks truth to power. The power in Matthew’s gospel account comes in the form of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Historically, these were two very different groups: the former represented lay religious scholars and the latter the elite religious establishment. These two groups often presented opposing viewpoints to one another, but at least in Matthew’s portrayal of them, they united around a skepticism toward the ministry of John the Baptist.

The Greek preposition in verse 7 isn’t clear about whether these leaders were coming for the baptism or against the baptism that John was offering. In either case, John discerns in them an impure intent—either direct resistance to the baptism of others or an attempt to be baptized themselves for show with no true intention to repent. So he exhorts, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance!” (Matthew 3:8).

This is the role of a prophet—to recognize and rebuke powers and authorities who exist on pretense and whose actions threaten to harm the well-being of the people. But John goes further than this. In our Gospel today, John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Sadducees—the religious leaders of his day—a “Brood of Vipers!” (Matthew 3:7).

Words matter. The words we use to describe one another and ourselves help to shape and define who we are in relation to one another.

In a culture where honor is based on bloodline and descent, John’s words sting. These religious leaders, who pride themselves as descendants of Abraham (Matthew 3:9), are instead likened to the descendants of poisonous snakes. John, as a Jew, is distancing these particular leaders from their Jewish heritage as children of Abraham.

It is worth saying directly, in light of recent political discourse, that Matthew’s John is not describing all Jewish people with this critique. He speaks directly to the Jewish leaders, and not even all the Jewish leaders at that—John is calling out a particular group of leaders which is threatening the spiritual exercise of baptism and repentance in which John and his fellow Jews are engaged.

John’s critique is not about bloodline. In fact, quite the opposite, John’s point is that bloodline is not enough. He, as a Jew, is calling to account the Pharisees and Sadducees as leaders who have let their people down. He continues, “For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham” (Matthew 3:9b). God can and does use anyone to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth.

What matters most is not the soil a person comes from, but the fruit that person bears. And the fruit that these leaders are bearing for the Jewish people is venomous. John calls them out. He distances himself from them, and makes clear to those listening that those who act counter to the purposes of God’s Kingdom of peace and righteousness aren’t to be trusted.

With his strong words to describe these dangerous leaders, John warns the leaders, the people, and us that God wants more—more from God’s leaders, more from God’s people, and at the heart of it all, more for God’s people—leaders and citizens alike.

This ‘more’ is what John’s baptism is all about. He calls to mind the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make the Lord’s paths straight!” (Matthew 3:3). For in God’s Kingdom, Isaiah promises, “The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den” (Isaiah 11:8).

In God’s Kingdom, snakes don’t seem to be a problem anymore. Maybe the particular leaders gathered at the Jordan riverbank were a brood of vipers. Maybe John was being too harsh. But either way, their fate is the same: they will be judged in righteousness by the Lord, Immanuel, God With Us.

And that’s the real hope of the Advent season. Not that one group of people will be declared superior to another. But that together we will experience, through the presence and promise of Jesus, God’s Kingdom. That we may all be called “Children of God” and bear fruits of repentance, justice, and peace worthy of that title—fruits that make straight the way of the Lord.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Lindeman Allen is Co-Lead Pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, NV. She holds her PhD from Vanderbilt University in New Testament and Early Christianity.

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