But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."
- Matthew 3:7-12
In yesterday's reading, we began the Gospel of Matthew. It begins as the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham: Abraham begot Isaac, Isaac begot Jacob, and Jacob begot Judah and his brothers. Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez begot Hezron, and Hezron begot Ram. Ram begot Amminadab, Amminadab begot Nahshon, and Nahshon begot Salmon. Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab, Boaz begot Obed by Ruth, Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David the king. David the king begot Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah. Solomon begot Rehoboam, Rehoboam begot Abijah, and Abijah begot Asa. Asa begot Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat begot Joram, and Joram begot Uzziah. Uzziah begot Jotham, Jotham begot Ahaz, and Ahaz begot Hezekiah. Hezekiah begot Manasseh, Manasseh begot Amon, and Amon begot Josiah. Josiah begot Jeconiah and his brothers about the time they were carried away to Babylon. And after they were brought to Babylon, Jeconiah begot Shealtiel, and Shealtiel begot Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel begot Abiud, Abiud begot Eliakim, and Eliakim begot Azor. Azor begot Zadok, Zadok begot Achim, and Achim begot Eliud. Eliud begot Eleazar, Eleazar begot Mattham, and Matthan begot Jacob. And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ. So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations, from David until the captivity in Babylon are fourteen generations, and from the captivity in Babylon until the Christ are fourteen generations. Our reading continued from chapter 3 of Matthew's Gospel, giving us the ministry of John the Baptist. In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying: "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight.'" Now John himself was clothed in camel's hair, with leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" The Sadducees were a type of aristocracy, made up of members of the high-priestly and landowning classes. They control the temple and the internal political affairs of the Jews under Roman occupation. My study bible explains that they denied the resurrection of the dead, and they had no messianic hope beyond worldly life. The Pharisees were a lay religious movement. Their emphasis was on the study of the Law and strict observance of all its regulation. They did believe in resurrection and in a messianic hope, but their view of righteousness was that which is attained on the strength of works according to the Law. For them the Messiah is going to be an exalted or glorious man. Jesus will also use the same words John does, "brood of vipers," about these leaders (Matthew 12:34, 23:33). My study bible says this indicates their deception and malice, and being under the influence of Satan. The Baptist's warning about the wrath to come clearly indicates an expectation of judgment associated with the coming of the Messiah.
"Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.'" My study bible says that repentance, confession, and baptism lead to fruits worthy of repentance, a way of life consistent with the Kingdom of God (Galatians 5:22-25). Sacramental acts, it says, and spiritual discipline are useless without the spiritual fruitfulness John speaks of here, and mentioned by St. Paul in the excerpt from Galatians. Here, John indicates these men rely on their identity and lineage as descendants of Abraham, rather than an identity as sons of Abraham by virtue of the spiritual fruits of their own lives, as Abraham lived his.
"For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees." This warning is a play on words: from these stones (Hebrew 'ebanim) God can raise up children (Hebrew banim). The ax being laid to the fruit of the trees is an indication of the results of spiritual "fruitlessness." The warning is of the adoption of other children who will bear fruits, from the Gentiles. St. Peter will write to those in the Church describing them as "living stones" (1 Peter 2:4-5).
"Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." My study bible explains that Christ baptizes in the fire of the Holy Spirit, the power and grace of God which is divinely poured out on all believers at baptism. In the contemporary culture of John, a slave would carry the king's sandals. John declares himself therefore to be lower than a slave of Jesus. To carry another's sandal also meant taking someone else's responsibility -- John cannot be the person that Christ is. It is an indication that the Law cannot redeem the world as Christ has come to do.
"His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." The winnowing fan was a way of separating the nourishing parts of the wheat from the chaff, an outer husk of the grain which is indigestible for human beings. This is a metaphor for divine judgment.
It's interesting to consider the metaphor of the wheat. Harvesting is a metaphor used repeatedly in the New Testament. Wheat is also the substance of the Eucharist, of bread, the body of Christ. We could tease out this metaphor by examining the good part of the grain; that is, that which is like what goes into the Eucharist, the bread of life. What is separated out is that which is not of the substance that nourishes, not like the good bread of the Kingdom. If the world is a garden created by God for human beings, then what grows in this garden becomes the theme we can read in today's reading concerning harvesting and Judgment, which is irreducibly associated with the coming of Christ, the Messiah, in the words of John the Baptist. Spiritual fruits become a theme of essential importance in this view. This idea begs us to ask the question, "What are we here for?" It gives us purpose, meaning, and goal to our lives. A "fruitless" tree is one to which the ax will be laid at its roots. As John the Baptist prepares the world -- at least Israel, the people of God -- for the advent of the Lord, the Christ, he prepares them with a warning of Judgment. Repentance and baptism by water (a kind of death in preparation for the new) are keys. We are letting the past go, giving up ways that are not fruitful, letting what is fruitless die and be cast off from ourselves. His warning is a prophetic voice teaching us about change, about the time we have in our lives to change, to think about what is truly spiritually fruitless, and what we need to cast off in order to prepare for the Lord. This message, while warning about Judgment, is a great message of hope. The Light is coming, the One who will teach that He is the light of the world. While we live, this very moment, we have time for repentance, for casting off the old that does not render us spiritually fruitful, the habits of a kind of self-centeredness which has no use for the things of the Kingdom. We cast away a focus that cannot embrace God's work in us, and dialogue with the Creator who has given us life, and also a garden to tend one way or another. John turns our eyes to Christ, and in this sense, it is always a needful message, one that speaks to us right here and now, always contemporary. Are our lives fruitful? What do we need to cast off? How do we need to "change our minds" -- the literal meaning of the Greek word for repentance used here in the Gospel. What does it mean to bear fruits worthy of repentance? This will always be something we need to think about, a very present question, pertinent to us right this moment. How do we become living stones, or children by adoption? What makes us like the wheat? How are we ready for a harvest? What prepares us for good growth? What do you need to let go of in the baptism of fire, the energy of the Holy Spirit?