Matthew 3: 7-9--
When he [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees
coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
And do not presume to say to yourselves,
‘We have Abraham as our father.’
For I tell you,
God can raise up children to Abraham from these STONES.”
May the God of endurance and encouragement
grant you to think in harmony with one another…
Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you,
for the glory of God.
O God, with your judgment endow the king,
and with your justice, the king’s son;
he shall govern your people with justice
and your afflicted ones with judgment.
Justice shall be the band around his waist,
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
"Peace be with you, Samwise Gamgee, here at the end of all things."
Next week the Advent readings will begin the True Story of the Savior's birth, thereby introducing the yearly telling of the Drama of Salvation that focuses the cycle of the Sunday readings. Today belongs to John the Baptist. Urgency and dissonance again turn up in the readings for the week, especially the Gospel. Matthew ties the Old Regime with the New in the person of the Baptist. So this part of his Gospel just as easily belongs to the ancient law of piety and justice as to the joyful post-Resurrection awareness that illuminates the Gospel as a whole.
So John the Baptist is the last in the line of the Prophets, and he meets the standard. He is inspired by God to speak difficult truth to those whom the people fear. The Men of the law and the men of the Temple wield both worldly influence and religious self-righteousness in first-century Palestine. They feel no compulsion to be nice about it. Nor do they feel compunction about what was apparently a shameless level of hypocrisy, so for show they come to the Baptizer who proclaims the prophetic message of metanoia: change your mind and change your heart, for God is near and God's judgment is upon all. John's swift condemnation of these characters exhibits not only the pure model of the Biblical prophet, but the gift of discerning the truth of human character, that which the rest of us hope and think is not so visible. John has risked everything for God; he is formed in the fierce and lonely Judean wilderness, has felt the Hand of God clutch his innermost being, and has surrendered to Yahweh. His recompense is to see his world and its justice as Yahweh does. He knows with the mind of God where the poor stand and where the Pharisees and Sadducees stand.
John the Baptist proclaims a standard not one of us can meet. As described by St. Paul, "all of us have sinned and fallen short of God's glory." It is the truth. We SHOULD fear God's gaze. All the prophets proclaim judgment. But the same Mind of God that caused each of them to wince at the ability of the human soul to harbor a thousand faces of genuine ugliness also teaches a truth that is even harder to see: that God's Covenant Promise stands strong still. Even in the old regime Isaiah contemplated a vision of a world not only healed but brought to an impossible goodness. Isaiah's metaphor is powerful, but it is the exact counterpoint to John's "brood of vipers"--"The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair." God fashions a regime that is safe for those who will risk the return to original innocence and original justice. This is the true and only metanoia.
Hence, Jesus comes and will come to teach the knowing and the living of the reign of God. Both John the Baptist and Jesus preach the At-Hand-ness of God's work around us and in us. It's appropriate for Paul to wish the saints of the ancestral Church, "May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another." If we don't know and admit human sinfulness, we don't know much by anyone's standard. At the same time that each of us ACTS the Pharisee, each of us is also called to LIVE the welcoming, harmony, gentleness and transforming charity of Emanuel, God-with-us and God-who-will-be-with-us.
A blessed Second Week!