Speeches that begin, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath that is to come,” may not be the best marketing ploy for our times. Strident warnings about how neither the children of Israel or we should be content to rest on our laurels by pointing out that God can raise up children of Abraham from stones in the dirt, may not set well with us.
So, among other things we might pause to give thanks that the strident tone of his preaching is not the full story of God’s dealing with his people. John’s message is not the message of salvation. Only just preparatory installment to wake us up from complacency to see our need for the gift of salvation. We may not see this portion of the Gospel as Good News, but the Good News remains that that hope and salvation is possible through Jesus Christ our Lord, and thank God it is not offered through the name of John!
One thing that struck me as interesting is that the people’s immediate reaction to John’s speech is to ask the question, “then what shall we do?” And, John’s advice is sound: start by behaving morally and ethically. Start becoming the change you would like to see:
- Share with people in need,
- quit gouging each other,
- don’t abuse the authority with which you were entrusted,
all of which sounds like a prequel to portions of the Sermon on the Mount and Summary of the Law that Jesus taught.
But what also fascinates me about this is that the human reaction is generally cast in terms of doing something. What is the action plan, what is the solution, what can we do? And when we humans can’t identify a constructive thing that we can do, then we can do another thing which is worry—a thing that I like to call the little liturgy of the wringing of the hands. It is because all of us are oriented towards doing what might make a difference.
What we tend to forget is that there is the ontological side which is just as important as what we do, and it often times is fairly neglected. Now, I know I used a ten-dollar word. Ontological is a fancy philosophical term for being. In other words, what we do is important, but who we are is just as important. For example, if we give something to a person in need, but do it begrudgingly, then we have done a good deed, but that good deed is tarnished by the spirit in which it was done. We are called to do good deeds, yes, but we are also called to BE signs of the kingdom.
When we focus all our energy on the doing of things to the exclusion of our spiritual lives, what happens essentially is that soon our energy and passion becomes exhausted and dries up. We may have done a world of good, but what good is it if we have lost our souls in the process? The challenge is that it is a lot easier to do something or to argue about an issue than it is to address the ontological matter of not what did you do but who you are.
It is said of most people that their identification of themselves is often centered around what they do: ask any little boy what he wants to be when he grows up and he will inevitably answer in terms of an occupation: I want to be a fireman, or a policeman, or a doctor, or a lawyer. You will not get an answer like, “I want to be a whole human being.”
So the real challenge in today’s Gospel and in John the Baptist’s teaching has to do with the quality of life. It is not quite about a function of what you do. It is a question of who you are. And who you and I are and what we are reminded to be is not a brood of vipers. We are to be and to become the people of God.