12.04.2016 Preaching Text: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7b)
Why do you think Jesus was so reviled? It’s a big question, one that could take years, with no guarantee of ever achieving a definite answer.
Of course not everybody found him detestable, as we know. He had a big following as did another apparent reprobate, John the Baptist. In today’s reading from Matthew we once again see the large crowds flocking to be baptized by him, he the uncouth outsider.
And all seems to be going swimmingly until, that is, the Pharisees and Sadducees arrive on the scene.
“You brood of vipers!” John shouts out, not altogether kindly. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
But he’s not done. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” he admonishes, before adding the kicker: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stone to raise up children to Abraham.”
So I guess we can strike John off our Christmas party guest list, no?
Yet what is he actually saying to us? And should we pay attention? To have treated the highly respected establishmentarians this way seems, if nothing else, a bit rude. Why not just baptize them and let it go at that?
John’s reference here to Abraham is key. His point is that those who rely on status never quite get it. These establishmentarians rely on their credentials, their connections, their bona fides, in order to be affirmed and as the basis for their legitimacy and authority.
John, not part of the inner circle, is clearly unimpressed, rejecting their credentials as beside the point. What matters to John is faith, and the gift of love which is its foundation. Knowing such love, he is saying, produces good fruit.
One of the most confusing aspects of Christianity is its paradoxical treatment of “faith” and “works.” The tendency is to see the two as mutually exclusive, though this is in fact a false dichotomy.
The problem Jesus and Paul had with “works” is not that we shouldn’t do good deeds, just that we should avoid rote obedience to the impersonal abstractions of the law. This is where the Pharisees come in for special criticism. For Jesus and Paul, such impersonal obedience distorts our relationships – with God and one another.
Genuine works are words and actions born of love, born of relationship. Mindlessly following a bunch of rules doesn’t qualify as love.
Yet, as we know, love is at the core of Christianity. And it is Christ who offers it to us, as pure gift. This gift cannot be earned, coerced, or coaxed. Anyone who’s ever been in love surely knows this.
Thus it is simple gratitude for this unmerited gift that motivates us to do good works, not the soulless demands that we obey impassive rules. Seeking to give back something of what we have received is the essence of bearing “good fruit.” Such are acts of love given from the heart, selflessly and lovingly.
Paul puts it this way: “Welcome one another,” he writes in Romans 15, “just as Christ has welcomed you…” Christ’s love and hospitality, you see, come first. We merely pass it along.
The “works” mentality, in contradistinction, seeks to do the right thing without love as its primary motivating factor. It’s like giving a teacher a shiny apple so that he or she will look favorably on us and give us a good grade!
That same shiny apple, however, given out of genuine appreciation is a very different matter. The same act thus betrays an entirely different motivation.
In reading the last two chapters of the Book of Revelation, the Bible Study group encountered passages referring to Christ’s judgment at heaven’s “pearly gates.”
There was surprise that Christ would consider “works” as the prerequisite for admission into paradise. But as James rightly puts it, “faith without works is dead.” James assumes that faith, born of love and relationship, comes first. But his greater point is that without works, works that honor, strengthen, and deepen our relationships, any claim to faith is all but empty.
If you say you love someone, and you treat them with disregard, without kindness, without “works,” the depth of your love must be called into question.
So is it this the Pharisees and Sadducees fail to see? It would seem so. Their actions appear to be based more on performance than love of God and neighbor. Such a performance-based approach actually separates a person from others, the very opposite of Christian love.
So to get back to my initial question. Why was Jesus so reviled, particularly among the establishment? Perhaps it is just this, that Christ’s command to love forms the essence of faith, not competence, status, or dutiful rule-keeping.
For without love, the human tendency is to search for other means in order to feel valued and affirmed. It’s a tired, familiar story.
Money seems to be our favorite substitute for love. It promises security. If we have enough money, we’ll be safe.
But money also confers status. It enables us to suppress our natural insecurities by assuring us that we’re “a cut above.” It also encourages sycophantic relationships based on power and esteem. But that’s not love, certainly not the kind Jesus lived and taught.
Academic achievement is another tried and true method of feeling valued. It places us above the “uninitiated.” Our opinions matter more. The beauty of this is that we don’t have to be wealthy in order to count ourselves better. In some cases, in fact, wealth could be seen as a diminishment of our higher status, for we after all are not beholden to “filthy lucre.”
Even morality can be used to lord our status over those less adept at navigating the ethical shoals of life. One author recently pointed out, for instance, that his strong work ethic has far more to do with his parents’ influence than anything he himself has achieved.
One of the biggest problems in our current meritocratic society is that it assumes society’s winners to be by definition superior. Such a society is based on the belief that anyone can succeed. When others fail, it’s their fault. Never mind the often disproportionate benefit gained by family connections and social capital that is afforded the successful through no effort of their own.
As we move ever-closer to the manger, we need to bear in mind that it was Jesus’ and John’s love for the human person, not their credentials or status, that led the crowds to follow them. Nor was it their competence, efficiency, or worldly success. Amen.