“YOU BROOD OF VIPERS!” Condemnation or Warm Welcome?
Richard Mario Procida, Esq.
7John 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? 8Bear 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. 9Even 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.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers 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.”
15As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” 18So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
It sometimes seems that after 2000 years of interpretation we are no closer to understanding the Bible. I understand how politics and human nature can lead to error, but I don’t understand why we fail to simply read the text as it is. Instead, people insist on adding to the text things that the text doesn’t contain.
Not every verse in the Bible has to say the same thing. Not every author has to agree with all the others. Not every doctrine is always supported by the text. Sometimes there are different and opposing views represented. Sometimes the doctrines are wrong or incomplete.
The world is complex. That complexity is reflected in the Bible by a variety of viewpoints. We don’t agree on everything, and no doctrine is entirely correct and infallible. The Bible is not entirely consistent, and no man can systematize God’s word.
Systematic theology distorts our interpretation. It defines the beliefs and creeds that dominate Christianity. These beliefs and creeds distort our interpretation, because when the text doesn’t match them, we interpret it so that it conforms to our beliefs rather than to what it actually says.
Another thing that irks me is the lack of humor many Christians are afflicted with. A text that might make first century Christians laugh is taken so severely that it no longer makes sense. Luke 3:7-18 is this sort of text.
John the Baptist addresses the crowds saying “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” John is chiding the crowds, but the crowds don’t seem to take it too hard. They don’t grumble. They don’t hang their heads in shame. They don’t prostrate themselves in fear and trembling. They include the most despised: tax-collectors and soldiers. They knew who they were. They were not offended.
Instead, they ask “Teacher, what should we do?” They are “filled with expectation”. They wonder whether John is the Messiah. They are not disturbed or brought low by his teaching. They relish it.
These people loved John. They came to see him, to be baptized by him. He was entertaining and charismatic. These were his followers, and they came to hear the good news.
John loved them, too. He is not talking to the Sadducees and Pharisees, as in Matthew 3:7. He’s talking to the crowds, common people. This crowd includes those seeking forgiveness through baptism—John’s baptism.
How then can John call these people a “brood of vipers!”?
This is good natured ribbing. John calls them a “brood of vipers” out of love and commonality. They understand that as landless poor, tax collectors and soldiers they were despised and marginalized. John accepts them into his flock despite their lowly status.
We’ve got the tone wrong. We fail to understand how John relates to the crowds, and we don’t have the nonverbal cues we need to understand him. This is like when friends meet and call each other names then hug and laugh. This is humor combined with teaching. This is homiletics at its best. John embraces the crowd by calling them a “brood of vipers” and then teaches them.
Imagine beginning your sermon like this:
“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 are believers”; for I tell you, God is able to rise up believers from stones. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Smile. Say it with your arms wide open. If you are really good, they might even see a twinkle in your eye. Then see how they respond. Do they smile? Do they laugh? Do they frown? Do they look concerned, fearful, confused?
Some of course won’t get it. So explain it to them. Tell them that God asks for a radical commitment. Share even your underwear. (The coat in verse 11 is actually an undergarment.) While humorous, this is also an indication of the intimacy within Luke’s community. They shared everything. [Acts 2:45]
You can then acknowledge that you yourself are unworthy. You have not always born good fruit. You too wish for cheap salvation. You are a fellow viper in the brood. We all are.
According to John the Baptist, God judges us by the consequences of our actions. Not even baptism can save us. John’s “powerful one” does not seek out sons of Abraham. So don’t think you need only believe. We are not saved by our status as Christians. We are to bare good fruit, and we are judged based upon our conduct. This makes more sense after all. Baring good fruit is a part of the deal. Only a brood of vipers could think themselves saved without regard for the consequences of their actions.
John then talks about “good fruit” and “bad fruit.” Let’s consider the good and bad fruit John identifies. The “bad fruit” is poverty, hunger, corruption, oppression, violence, and the threat of violence. The “good fruit” is providing for the common good and resisting Imperialism. These are not the personal issues Christians are so used to. John says nothing about converting nonbelievers. Instead he talks about corruption and oppression.
Corruption was built into Roman Imperialism. Tax collectors paid for the right to collect taxes. They were motivated to take more than their due and not prevented from doing so. Similarly, soldiers were paid so little that they may have expected to supplement their income by extortion. John’s command to resist these temptations addresses the systemic pressures of empire and the corruption and violence it breeds.
John exhorts us to cloth the poor and feed the hungry, to resist violence and oppression, to share with others and not take from them. We are to work for the common good while being conscious of our role in the system. To the extent that we must work within the system, we must not perpetuate corruption and violence.
Regardless of what you believe, works are important. Do not deemphasize them. In this reading, God measures us by the consequences of our actions, not our status as Christians, not our beliefs and doctrines. Other parts of the Bible may say something different, but John says nothing here about correct belief and doctrine. He mentions nothing about faith. According to John, not even baptism saves us. So think long and hard before you say “I am a believer, therefore I am saved.” According to John the Baptist, God might not see it that way.