When I say the name John the Baptist to you what image comes to mind? Do you think of the cousins Elizabeth and Mary sharing news of each other’s pregnancy? Do you think of John’s interactions with Jesus at the river Jordan? Do you think of John being arrested and placed in jail because of his prophetic words and vocation?
Even though John is a fixture in every Advent season we don’t see or hear much about him in the way we celebrate the birth story of Jesus in our homes, churches or culture. You might get an Advent calendar or Christmas card but there is little chance you will see or hear anything about John the Baptist.
One year, just to make a point, I sent all my friends and family a John the Baptist card that read “Merry Christmas you brood of vipers!” John appears in the card just as he is described by the Gospel writers “clothed with camel's hair and wearing a leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey.” Has anyone ever received a card like this?
One of the reasons we don’t hear much about John in the Advent and Christmas seasons has to do with these four words, “you brood of vipers”. These words may seem appropriate for Lent, a season about a critical assessment of self and community, the renewal of commitment by individuals, churches and nations, but they don’t seem to connect with the Advent season, a time of preparation and expectation. John sounds cranky at best, mean at worst, a reflection of a kind of judgement we seldom approve of anymore.
I dug more deeply into these words with the aid of Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov’s writings, a scholar who spent considerable time and effort to uncover the original intent of “you brood of vipers.” Fr. Sveshnikov points to the seeming contradiction between the obvious faithfulness and courage of women and men who gathered having “departed their normal lives, expressing anew their allegiance to God” and the harsh words “you brood of vipers”.
Let’s start with Fr. Sveshnikov’s unpacking of the serpent imagery. “In Judean culture, a snake or a serpent is not always viewed in a purely negative way. Consider, for example, a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, which was probably addressed to mostly Judean Christians in which Christ advises his disciples to be as wise as serpents (10:16). Similarly, Christ’s reference to a serpent in John 3:14-16 “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” is a positive image. And then there is Num. 21:8 “And the Lord said to Moses, Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.”
“The Greeks’ relationship with snakes and serpents is even more complex than that of the Jews. Greek culture treats snakes as either sacred good or sacred danger, but not bad. A snake is the wisdom attribute of Athena. A snake coils around the staff of the Greek god of healing and medicine. In the same manner, Greek Orthodox bishops even today have two snakes coiled around their staff as a symbol of “ultimate pastoral authority”, power, wisdom, and perhaps healing.”
Fr. Sveshnikov says that the Gentile community would have lacked the direct moral instructions of the Jewish people. After all some Greek gods behaved in a way that was completely amoral, offering no instruction on how a moral person ought to live. And so Luke’s Gentile audience ask the basic question of John, “what should we do?” “John, delivers a powerful social justice message in 3:10-14 ‘Now, this is how you repent; this is the direction in which you should turn your life.’” John calls on the multitude to share clothes, to share food and to bear fruit. It’s that simple and that difficult. One thing I have noted, when we are grateful for what we have we are less likely to be looking for more. If I am grateful for one shirt and I have two shirts my spirit of compassion and generousity is much more likely to take hold than if I am not grateful and feel compelled to accumulate more.
Back to Fr. Sveshnikov, he says, “It is important that the multitudes are referred to as a brood of vipers rather than vipers. A viper kills the mother that gives birth to it and comes into the world by tearing through her belly. Likewise the Pharisees and the Sadducees were able to tear through their culture and tradition of self-righteousness and come to repent and be baptized by John. Since many members of Luke’s community came from Gentile backgrounds they too had to tear through their tradition in order to accept Christianity. Pharisees, Sadducees and Gentiles had to leave behind some old beliefs and behaviours in order to accept Christ’s message. They had to become a brood of vipers, tearing through the belly of the old serpent.”
My friends we too have to “tear through the old serpent of our past, reject the old ways of injustice and self-righteousness, and bear a worthy fruit of repentance.” In our consumer culture that tells us to buy, to spend on those who have enough, to cover our surroundings with bling we are burying those who bear the mark of Christ, the vulnerability of the sacred birth, and the deep connection faith brings to relationship and community. Some listeners to John said, “We have Abraham as our ancestor” as a justification for keeping to an old and deadly path. But isn’t that us too, thinking that we are Christians only because we were born to Christian parents or belong to a Christian church.
So, what could we say to people who have come to be baptized? “Be like a brood of vipers!”