Advent Week 2: “You Brood of Vipers!”

John the Baptist icon, Syria (18th Century) From Wikimedia Commons

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume 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. 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.”
(Matthew 7-10, NRSV)

I imagine the look on the religious leaders’ faces as they heard John ‘s words: “Vipers? Who… us?”

Many religious leaders are used to handing out verbal abuse, preaching hellfire and damnation, and telling us in sermons who is in and who is out. They are not used to having the tables turned, to hear a prophetic word leveled at their own behavior or institutions. Religious leaders like to imagine themselves as John, and not as John’s audience. They prefer Luke’s version of this story, where John chastises the crowds… not the one where he chastises religious leaders.

I think we see this same story being played out in our world right now. White evangelical leaders are hearing criticism from followers and popular authors (like Kristin Kobes du Mez and Jemar Tisby) who are giving voice to those who are “deconstructing” the version of Christianity they’ve been taught. These preachers resent being called “a brood of vipers.” Who doesn’t? Many have become defensive, arguing that Christian progressives and those who are deconstructing racist, sexist, individualistic, and nationalist versions of Christianity are actually rejecting Jesus.

I believe they are hearing the words of John, which are a necessary correction to toxic religion that privileges its leaders’ identity. In our world, white, male, straight, cisgender religious leaders consider themselves the proper “heirs of Abraham,” and their theology reflects that privilege. When John said, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham,” he was saying what we heard in Isaiah 54: Membership in God’s family doesn’t depend on human gatekeepers.

That’s the kind of language that makes religious leaders nervous. It should.

Prayer: Mothering, Fathering God, you keep throwing open gates when we try to shut them. Thank you for your generous, inclusive grace. Amen.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr.