Friday, 3 January 2014

A brood of vipers?

Lectionary Readings for Jan. 12, 2014. Isaiah 42:1-9, Ps 29, Acts 10:34-43, Matt 3:13-17
Donita Wiebe-Neufeld

Any pastor should feel some discomfort reading this passage from Matthew, at least if they start reading back at verse 7. It makes us take a good hard look at our motivations, our actions, our results. We don't want to be like the scribes and pharisees who get called a brood of vipers.Why does John do that? Surely some, if not most, of them are truly committed to their calling. They see themselves as doing what is right, they work hard at it and they are concerned about their people, just like pastors.

John tells them to produce "fruit in keeping with repentance." Perhaps they were so concerned about keeping the public appearances just right that their words and actions no longer matched their inner calling. Maybe they were more concerned about keeping their places of honour than of making changes as needed. I wonder if they were just trying to jump on the latest "ministry fad bandwagon". (Always a temptation as we look for ways to 'fix' the church, keep the youth, invigorate the services....) John was popular, so maybe they were hitching their wagons to his team to benefit themselves while the excitement lasted. Who knows?

John certainly isn't impressed, but I wonder if there is any way the pharisees and scribes could have approached him and gotten a positive reaction. Was John just railing against the establishment, or did he have a valid complaint?

No matter what we think is behind this exchange, the point is our lives must match our confession. John felt the Pharisees and scribes weren't managing this congruency. If we repent of something, we must leave it behind. If we claim to believe something, our lives have to be congruent with that belief. (An example: we might claim to care about the environment, but the refusal to change our lifestyles puts the lie into our claims!) John goes on to say that God can raise up children (followers) from the stones-none of us is to think we are better than anyone else or have the corner on the exact way to be God's children.

Starting at verse 13, John has another complaint about a baptism request. Here, he wants to refuse Jesus for the opposite reasons he wanted to refuse the Pharisees. Jesus is too good! John offers a baptism of repentance, but feels he should be confessing to Jesus, not the other way around.Jesus, however, convinces John that this is an important thing, to fulfil righteousness (or the right way to go about things.)  I think the baptism here takes on a larger significance for Jesus. It's not really about turning from the old life of sin, but turning from his childhood and preparation to full ministry. So while baptism signals a new start for the people, for Jesus it is also a new start, but it is a commissioning instead of a confession.

The theme of acceptance and equality and right living is also apparent in Paul's words in Acts. God has no favourites, anyone who believes and lives it is saved, even the Gentiles, even those whose redemption surprises our traditional sensibilities. These passages are clear in their message. We are to be humble, knowing that God is the leader and we (even the leaders, especially the leaders among us) are followers. Our calling is to act on what we learn, so our lives are about glorifying God not ourselves.

I apply this Matthew message to pastors, but it is for leaders of all sorts. Whether you are a teacher, a parent, a friend counselling another friend, or any sort of "voice" to another person, you are in a place of trust and leadership. Your words and actions should be congruent. These passages are a call to self-examination, a check-up to make sure we are on the right path for the right reasons.

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