7John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
What I am Learning:
The People of Israel are experiencing the exile at home (NT Wright: see last week's post). The Romans and their client kings are in charge of the practical, every day decisions of governing. Their influence was much larger. The U.S. is not in charge everywhere in the world, but our cultural and economic influence is everywhere. So the Romans and their cultural and economic ways were influencing the People of Israel and warping their way of life.
This is just what empires do.
The "word of God" came to John and he called people out to the Jordan river. This is something like calling Americans back to Plymouth Rock to say that "we have lost our way and we need to begin again."It is important to remember that John was not just calling individuals to repentance, but calling the whole nation to change its ways. John does, however, honor the power of changed individuals to change the larger culture.
As I said last week, John's message to his people was: before you can be free from the Roman Empire you need to be free within it.
So the crowds came out be baptized by John to be changed, they came out to begin the journey to freedom within the Roman empire. But John is aware of the powerful forces of denial and self justification that can blunt our repentance - practical-every-moment change that John was calling them to.
So he called the a brood of vipers. As the social sciences teach us, the honor of ones family determines one's honor in life. He is telling them that their claim to high status with God because of Abraham is worth nothing. Trees and vineyards were often used as images of the life and wellness of the People of Israel. John says that the very life of Israel is now at stake and even the roots will be cut - this means that there will be no righteous branch emerging from a stump, no hope for the tree cut down.
But God can raise up, even from stones, new children to Abraham so that God's covenant with Abraham can still come true: to be a blessing to all nations (Genesis 12).
John tells them to bear fruit worthy of repentance. The idea here is fruit come character of the tree, not from the tree's extraordinary effort. He tell them, as David Ewart said, to be re-rooted. I think to be re-rooted in the covenant promise instead of being rooted in the ways of the Roman Empire.
When the crowds ask him, "What should we do?" the Greek can also be translated "What (fruit) could we bear?"
Notice that all four of John's suggestions were about economics:
1) If you have two coats, share with someone that has none.
2) If you have food, share with those who don't
3) Tax collectors: don't take more than the going rate
4) Soldiers: don't extort money from people
In John's day, eighty-five percent of the people were poor. The Romans had installed the dog-eat-dog culture of domination. John's people had been infected with it. To bear the fruit of a return to their covenant with God they would need to share and repudiate the ways they were exploiting one another.
We will, too.
I recently attended the Our Walmart protest in Mount Vernon, WA. Those people are asked to be available when Walmart wants them, but are not invited to work full time so they can earn a decent living or have the benefits they need. Most of them work as much as possible and live in poverty. Most of them cost the state in which they live about $2,000 because they are poor. This means that Walmart is not only exploiting those workers and their families, they are exploiting every state in the Union, and thus every tax payer to make their 16 Billion in profits.
What fruit would they need to bear that would befit repentance? Items at Walmart would cost 1% more if they paid their workers $25,000 a year plus benefits.
1%! And they could still make 16 Billion. The Waltons could still be 5 of the top 10 wealthiest people in the world.
So it really is not economic necessity that their employees are in poverty.
What is it then?
Domination. Dog-eat-dog domination. The idea that we are truly human the more money and power we have.
But the chaff that Jesus is burning is not just in the super wealthy. It is in us all, in our own culture of exploitation, and we are invited by John to bear a different kind of fruit.
I end with a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christians should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:9