The gospel lesson for the Second Sunday of Advent has that wonderfully scornful line rumbling out of John’s mouth, “You brood of vipers.” For the first time, I began to think about where else it is uttered. A total of three times in Matthew’s gospel, once from the lips of John the Baptist and twice from Jesus himself. It is directed at the religious and political elite all three times. It appears once in Luke, also from Jesus.
Each time it is connected with the need to demonstrate deeds worthy of a repentant life. John warns the Sadducees and Pharisees who were coming, not to watch but to undergo his baptism of repentance, to bear fruit worthy of repentance. In Matthew 12 Jesus also demands fruit worthy of repentance and suggests that those fruits are found not only in deeds but also in words. Later, in Matthew 23, he demands deeds of justice, mercy, faith, and an honest self examination that turns one away from a life of greed, self-indulgence and unmerited self-confidence as a moral guide to others.
Whatever Matthew was up to, using the “brood of vipers” line in three strongly worded condemnations of smug self-confidence in a loudly proclaimed faith that bears little fruit has got to demand our attention. I don’t think Matthew intended his audience to read it as a curious bit of history about John, Jesus and some self-righteous religious types hanging around in Palestine. I think that these words are intended to come crashing through the ages right into our own hearts and minds. They are about us.
Our casual identity as Christians can too often take the form of regular church attendance, pledging and maybe even engagement in bible study or some worthy project, but without any connection to daily living in other areas. On the other hand, we can also be tempted to confuse faith with an overly compulsive obsession in the rituals of worship. As did the Pharisees and Sadducees, we come to Jesus seeking his company and lingering on his words. We come for the comfort and consolation of Jesus meek and mild and get a tongue lashing for not bearing fruit worthy of repentance. Wow! Who wants that? Is it possible we should actually pay attention this time? Or maybe we could just hurry to the manger to adore the little baby who demands nothing more than his mother’s milk and a clean diaper.