Matthew 3:1-12, pt. 2
As a boy growing up in the Canadian province of Alberta it was a common summer occurrence for me to visit my cousin, Lance, in the rattlesnake infested prairie city of Medicine Hat. The two things I readily recall about this place were the extreme summer heat and copious amounts of snakes and bugs. It had all the makings of a Texas panhandle, Canadian style. Sometimes Lance and I would spend all day snooping around in a local swamp for tiny frogs we would stuff into plastic bags and even our pockets to use as food for his sundry pet snakes.
Snakes make for hours of macabre afternoon fun for young boys. The other neighborhood kids thought us especially daring as they observed our coolly maniacal method of placing live (well, mostly) frog bait into the glass snake enclosure and watch the even more diabolical process of a bull snake swallowing them whole. The unsuspecting frog instantly became one with the body of the snake as it slowly ingested, without chewing of any kind, the poor little bugger. Lance told me that the snake could live for weeks on that one amphibious morsel.
Lance and I would take his twin Garter snakes, wrap them around the handlebars of our bikes and ride through the neighborhood hoping to attract praise for our daring and courage. However, for how cool this was, something snakes are not is a guarantee of fully comfortable parental units or girl-attractors. The latter would scatter at our approach with throaty screams of horror. The former, specifically Moms, were aghast to discover frog guts in the washing machine after running our pants, frogs still in the pockets, through the wash cycle.
With these pictures in mind I must admit to more than a modicum of surprise in John’s choice of descriptor for the religious leader looky-Lous as they came out to spy on the strange goings on surrounding this desert hermit. With precious little concern for their high position or mind-your-manners politeness my parents would have insisted upon, he barks at them, branding them a “brood of vipers.” Far from the rather mundane characteristics of a bull or garter snake, by comparison vipers are insidious creatures. They are remarkably fast and poisonous possessive of hollow fangs and a mouth that can open almost 180 degrees. They paralyze their victims with both of these advantages and then proceed to swallow them whole. They enjoy the further benefit of special eye-slits that allow them to see in any light and make them particularly ominous at any time of day. Finally, the term “viper” derives from a pair of Latin words, vivo for “I live” and pario, “I give birth.” Vipers do not lay eggs like most reptiles. They give birth to live babies. Delightful.
Hence, as John sees the approach of Pharisees and Sadducees among the unwitting crowd he accuses them of being those who quickly poison others around them with a brand of teaching designed to paralyze them, denying freedom and life, and which draws them to their ultimate, slow demise. They stalk at night, the time when people have their defenses down and are most vulnerable, pouncing with the full weight of their religious machinery and, without the protective mechanisms of time and deeper consideration, give birth to more like them.
Only someone as unencumbered by the comforts of civilized life, “normal” food, regular bathing, nice breath and otherwise polite appearance would dare to be so disrespectful of their authority as John. He had nothing to lose for he had nothing. As such he was free to reveal the darkly sinister reality of their voyeuristic presence among those hungry souls of simpler pedigree coming to be baptized, freed from the weight that bound them. John’s modus operandi was hardly “gaining friends and winning influence.” Yet, that is exactly what he did despite the lack of bleached white teeth and dress-for-success power tie.
John’s ministry wasn’t an end in itself. It was preparatory. Had the gospel message ended here we would have had simply another Old Testament style prophet who proclaimed a return to the Law and obedience to it. The message and the preparation would have been one and the same. No, John is arming us for something. He is pushing people into the murky Jordan for more than good fireplace mantle photo opportunities or a short-term conscience cleanse. John was in the repentance business. He had spent his entire life, withdrawn from polite society, preparing for this moment. He had nothing to lose, literally. He would let nothing stand in the way of his ministry; certainly not these do-gooder pretender-monkeys whose idea of religious life included dividing up mint, dill and cumin like lines of cocaine with at-the-ready noses in the air all the while flinging theological feces at each other and worse, at us.
I’ve watched snakes being snakes. Cousin Lance and I could say a thing or two about John’s indictments here…I think I get his point.