John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin 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 axe 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.’
And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?’ In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’ (NRSV)
John’s confrontational style was strong but, importantly, not without hope. Yes, he was a straight-talker, but never one to condemn without offering an alternative. His preparing voice can name the crowds ‘vipers’, insist that family heritage is worthless, and point to the ‘axe lying at the root of the tree’, while the whole time encouraging recognition of the potential lying dormant within.
He names their short-fall and fills them with the expectation and excitement of an alternative.
It is a narrow and dangerous path to tread. Too far one way and he is nothing more than a crushing, and rejecting doom-sayer leaving listeners broken and hopeless in his wake. Too far the other way and his is a hollow message that all is well despite the stench rising from the rotten fruit of greed and oppression.
John does not freefall down either of these cliffs. Rather he preaches the possibility of a turn around – even for those caught in the wealth trap, collecting occupation taxes, or playing their part in Rome’s ruthless killing machine. Is it this honesty and hope that brings these people to hear John’s message? Do they gather because they are too far gone to see any alternative alone? Have they heard a rumour that makes them dream of another way?
Perhaps this compromised crowd’s willingness to come – seeking, listening – indicates both a growing frustration and…something that moves them to believe that there is another way.
And so they take the next step. Unsatisfiedwith less than a clear alternative they ‘ask’ this prophet of preparation: ‘What then should we do?’ What does this repentance-fruit look like? How can we be bearers of it? Can this desert-dweller really offer a grounded and practical alternative to urbanites caught in the daily grind?
They are right to ask. And John is prepared to answer. Not only does he know what healthy fruit looks like and the potential life-giving harvest within each heart, but he also knows the temptations and behaviours that have consumed and compromised. John speaks of practice rather than pie-in-the-sky ideal. Those with much can share; those working for Caesar can do it with integrity; those working for Rome can do it without falsely accusing, filling others with fear, and taking more than is theirs.
They are not stuck.
John’s baptism was never an intellectual exercise. It was not an invitation to simply acknowledge a ‘missing-the-mark’ (sin), shrug it off, and continue living life in the same destructive direction. In John’s mind repentance is a turning from ‘self’ to ‘others’. It means generosity and contentment. Repentance moves from greed and disregard to generosity and love.
Love is the fruit of the hope-filled, turn-around kingdom God is continually calling humanity to participate in. Practical, grounded, and acted out love straightens and smooths the path for God’s coming.