“People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? ” (Matthew 3:5–7, NIV)I don’t intend to emulate the ministry strategy of John the Baptist. OK, maybe I could get a camel hair blazer, but the locust and wild honey thing isn't happening. (I just started WeightWatchers, and I have no idea how to calculate points for locusts anyway!) There was something powerful about John’s message; he didn't come charging in from the wilderness to the city like Old Testament prophets like Amos. No, people went from the cities into the wilderness to hear him preach. In fact, they flocked in droves. There was something powerful and magnetic about his message—John wasn’t just telling people what they wanted to hear. His basic message was, “Repent!” That’s never really what we want to hear, is it?
What struck me in our reading for today was John’s response to the Pharisees and Sadducees who also came out to the wilderness. John immediately condemned them as a brood of vipers? Why? Well, he was preaching a message of repentance and they needed to repent… and they weren’t there to repent. We need to understand that Pharisees and Sadducees seldom attended the same events—they were on opposite ends of Jewish culture. The Sadducees were theologically liberal and politically connected; the Pharisees were strict conservatives who stood apart (or above) from politics and culture. They did not get along, but they went along to see John. But when John saw them, he immediately attacked their hypocrisy and demanded they show fruits of repentance. Shocking? Not really—John had been demanding that everyone repent. The difference was they the religious leaders didn’t think they needed to repent.
The obvious question here is “Do were have more in common with the crowds who heard John, repented of their sins and were baptized by him or with the Pharisees and Sadducees who wrapped themselves in their own mantles of religiosity and tradition?” Are we really showing the fruits of repentance in our lives as we seek to change (that’s what “repent” means). Or do we point to our religiosity (going to church?) and righteousness (going to the right church?) as proving that we are already pretty good people already.
The message of John is summed up “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 3:1). Matthew sums up the teaching of Jesus as “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” (Matthew 4:17). The challenge we face as we read this is in remembering that they are talking to us!