Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.
Virtuous Vipers: Why’d It Have To Be Snakes?
Has anyone ever seen the Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark?Remember that great scene when Indy and Sallah look down into the Well of Souls?
Sallah: Indy, why does the floor move?
Indiana Jones: Give me your torch!
Indiana Jones: Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?
Sallah: Asp very dangerous. You go first, Indy.
The point is that even the great Indiana Jones — archeology professor, adventurer, and antiquities hunter — has a reaction to snakes. Even those of us who aren’t scared to death of snakes would still probably have to confess to an attentive, alert reaction to the presence of a snake. We’re just wired for that. And yet, that’s how John the Baptist begins the welcome speech at his first baptismal preparation class at the edge of the Jordan. Luke’s gospel tells us that John warms up the crowd that came out to be baptized by him with these words:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance… Even 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.
Well, happy Rose Sunday to you too, John! Rose Sunday — or Gaudete Sunday — is our little lift in a penitential observance of Advent on the third Sunday of the season. We show that with the pink candle, and the rose color in this beautiful old Emmanuel stole. But good grief — us, a brood of vipers!?! Thrown into the fire? If that’s the Good News, I’m not sure I want to hear the bad!
But is this just John being John? The gospels tell us that everything about John the Baptist is sudden and surprising — from his birth to his ministry of baptism in the Jordan River. His mother Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John in her old age is a surprise — Elizabeth and Zechariah are sure that they’re well past their child-bearing years when the Angel Gabriel shows up to tell them that John is coming.
And John the Baptist’s ministry of baptism in the wilderness by the Jordan River is a surprise. He just shows up out of nowhere — God’s own fur-vested, bug-eating emissary of the Word, smack-dab in the middle of the 15th year of the reign of a long litany of Roman emperors, governors, and empire-licensed and selected high priests. How’s that for contrast, just to emphasize surprise? We haven’t heard a word about John since before he was even born, when he recognized still unborn Jesus when their mothers, cousins Elizabeth and Mary, meet.
Given God’s well-known history of surprise, how are we to understand today’s gospel, particularly in the context of today’s other readings? In Zephaniah, the people of Israel — and we, listening in now — have been told to rejoice, because God has taken away judgments against us and saved us from our enemies. The Apostle Paul tells the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord always. And for good measure, he adds: again, I will say, rejoice! Then John the Baptist calls all the people who have come to him to be baptized a brood of vipers — how do these ideas fit together?
A viper is a poisonous snake, and a brood of them is a reproducing family — like the scary, moving floor in the Indiana Jones movie. Asp very dangerous! You go first, Indy! But when the candidates for John’s baptism ask what they must do to avoid being cut down and thrown into the fire, John’s answer is simple: Share what you have, and don’t cheat people. Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. Even the tax collectors and soldiers weren’t condemned for who they were, and for the role they played in society. When they asked John what they should do, he told the tax collectors to collect no more than what was owed to them, and told the soldiers not to extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and to be satisfied with their wages. Easy peasy. As in one of my favorite children’s books, the code of conduct is pretty simple: no fighting, no biting. Even vipers — and tax collectors — can handle that!
Brood of Vipers
In answer to Indiana Jones’s question — Why’d it have to be snakes — think about the brood of vipers. A brood is a reproducing, growing, family of vipers. It’s true that snakes have been associated with Satan — the Tempter — since the serpent recommended the fresh apple on the Farm to Table menu in the Garden of Eden. But that was a single serpent, not a brood, which is a growing family — struggling to survive in the way God made them.
Vipers eat small animals and hunt by striking and immobilizing their prey with their venom. John calls the whole crowd come to repent of their sins and be baptized — including priests, scribes, tax collectors, farmers, vineyard workers, shepherds, and soldiers — a brood of vipers. There is nothing innately bad or wrong about any of them, or their roles in society, any more than there is in a family of snakes doing what snakes do to support the family.
It’s a surprising image, but John the Baptist made his mark on the world by shocking people out of their old ways of seeing and being in the world. He shocked his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, by being born in their old age. He shocked the Roman establishment, appearing outside the power structure but in plain sight in the wilderness on the Road to Jericho. And he even shocked the tax collectors, soldiers, and the brood of vipers with the surprising reassurance that they were not condemned to the fire because of who they were, but could save themselves by what they did. Share what you have and don’t cheat people. No fighting, no biting. Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say: rejoice! Amen