In my youth, I was always part of one Boy Scout troop or another, either in Fair Haven, where there were lots of kids, or later in Monmouth Beach, where there were not. I was never much of a scout; I should have been, considering that fact that my father is an Eagle Scout and was, for a time, our Scout Leader, but I didn’t have the natural inclination toward things like camping. The skills I should have learned in Scouts would have made my fire training a whole lot easier, especially the knot skills, in which I am still comically lacking. Well, it seems that my father the Eagle Scout spent summers as a wildlife counselor at a wilderness camp, and he can still identify with no little skill all manner of wildlife, including all the scary wild things that I run away from. Now, it seems that humans have a natural tendency to react with disgust toward anything that ambulates or otherwise gets around differently than we do, so I am well within my rights to freak out when I see a spider walking around sideways or a snake slithering along. Humans, then (myself included) naturally distrust creatures like snakes.
“On the face of it, one might logically assume that a snake is one of the least adaptable and most likely unsuccessful creatures on the planet. A snake is nearly deaf. It can’t chew its food. Without limbs, its locomotion is limited, and it can’t stand extreme heat or cold. However, such conclusions would be dead wrong. Surprisingly, you find the approximately 2,900 species of these legless reptiles virtually everywhere in deserts, grasslands, forests, mountains, and even oceans around the world; everywhere except the Arctic, Antarctic, Iceland, Greenland, Ireland, New Zealand, and some small oceanic islands.” Snakes are famous for swalling their prey whole; they “have a swallowing snorkel known as a glottis. The glottis is a tube-like tracheal opening the snake extends to allow it to breathe while swallowing. Reputedly, the biggest prey on record is a 59 kg (130-pound) antelope that was swallowed by an African rock python (Python sebae).”1
That’s pretty impressive, and so one might think that when John the Baptist called the people crowding around him a “brood of vipers,” that it could be taken as a sort of backhanded compliment. After all, snakes are, if nothing else, good at being snakes. They manage to live rather well despite all manner of limitations. Maybe this is like the time the Pharisees actually tried to do Jesus a favor by telling Him that Herod was out to kill Him, but Jesus said “Tell that fox” that he knows where to find me, amazingly throwing down an insult, a compliment, a dare, and a taunt at the same time.
But, chances are, John wasn’t trying to soften his words or allude to any actual qualities in his listeners. What we have here is John just flat beating on the very people who came out to see him. John is calling his fellow Israelites deaf to the call of God, he is saying that they had abandoned the good works done with their hands, they had stopped using their feet to walk in the way of the Lord. Worse yet, John was saying that the very people of God, the Chosen People, had become naturally untrustworthy.
I know what you’re thinking: “But Father Matt, it’s Gaudete Sunday! You’re wearing pink, for heaven’s sake! Where’s the hope? Where’s the rejoicing that’s inherent in this Sunday!”
I was wondering the same thing, to be honest, as I sat at my desk, attempting to wring some good news out of this passage for the third time in my preaching lifetime. The answer came from my friend and colleague Fr. Steve Pankey. “Luke,” he writes, “wraps this whole story up with a nice little bow by saying, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.” Which makes this preacher take pause and ask a question of myself. How is being called a brood of vipers good news? The answer, of course, is in the very next sentence out of [John the Baptist’s] mouth. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” The good news for [the Baptist’s] audience is that bearing fruit is possible.”2
That’s our good news too: bearing good fruit, doing good works, keeping the Faith, being who God wants us to be is possible! And not only is it possible, but with Christ’s help, it’s within reach. What the Baptist is telling us today is that, no matter who you are, repentance is possible; no matter what you’ve done, you can effect good in the world; you can be as low as a snake’s belly, but Jesus is coming, coming for you, because He loves you.
1The Characteristics of Snakes, by Dennis Holle, Suite 101, October 4, 2009.
2Steve Pankey A Christmas Card from the RCL Draughting Theology, December 12, 2012