The ax

June 6, 2013

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Luke 3:7-9.

He said to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance; and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

“You brood of vipers!” Jumping Jehosaphat! (I just learned that this refers to the fourth king of Judah and to the Valley of Jehosaphat where the prophet Joel warned that God will sit in judgment of the nations.) Talk about fire and brimstone! On the surface John’s pejorative exclamation to the crowd makes more sense in Matthew who had John addressing the Pharisees and Sadducees. Luke has broadened the indictment, though, to all the people. Why? He wanted to get his readers’ attention. Jews believed that they were exempt from God’s judgment because they were children of Abraham. John’s preaching was a jolt to their presumption of God’s salvation. He was saying to them, “Wake up! You can’t skate through life and expect to enter heaven. Repent, change! Otherwise you will suffer God’s wrath and be thrown into the fires of hell. You can’t expect to be saved just because you are a Jew.”

I can imagine this got some people pretty riled up. Yet, still people streamed out into the desert to be baptized by John. He must have been an incredibly charismatic preacher. In calling people a brood of vipers John may have been purposefully winnowing out those who were not prepared to repent, “to go beyond the mind that you have — to go beyond conventional understandings of what life with God is about” as Borg writes in Jesus. Those who were mere curiosity seekers or who came to judge John himself would not have chosen to be baptized, to repent and be forgiven their sins.

To those who were baptized John exhorted, “Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance.” John, the hinge of salvation history, is pointing forward to Jesus’ ministry and teaching, which had almost nothing to do with sin and almost everything to do with alleviating human suffering. That’s what John meant by producing good fruit — feed the hungry, carry the lame, lead the blind, cast no stones.

Change my mind and my behavior; produce good fruits. Produce or get the ax. That’s what I’m called to do. It’s not enough to call myself a Christian; that won’t guarantee me eternal life. I can’t get by with worshipping and praising God at Mass, then go out and judge others, turn my back on those in need, ignore the voices of those who are desperate to be heard. I have to walk the talk. That’s what John’s message is about for me today.



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