Who are you calling vipers!?!
A friend of mine tells a story of playing golf at a country club that has several holes that border busy city streets. I use to play there often, and I know well how thinly those fairways are separated from those streets by little more than a chain-link fence and some scraggly bushes. The drivers who pass by and the golfers who hit driver from the tee say the same prayer: “Please don’t let that golf ball hit a car.” Occasionally a ball flies into the road, but, even though I have hit more than my fair share out of bounds, I’ve never seen anyone actually strike a car. But back to the story.
One day, my friend was on one of the greens that is situated right at a busy intersection, where cars often sit and wait for the traffic light to change. As he and his playing partners were finishing up the hole, an aggravated motorist yelled out, “You rich bastards!” to which my friend quickly replied, “Who are you calling rich!?!” I’ve always liked that story. The subtlety of accepting the designation of a “bastard” while rejecting the label of being “rich” reminds me that the social categories an outsider might use to describe us can say a lot more than the categories we might use to describe ourselves.
In the gospel lesson for Sunday, John the Baptist looks at the crowd who has gathered around to hear him preach and says, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” I wonder how many of them thought of themselves as vipers. Surely that can’t be a positive thing—to be called a snake. I don’t have any polling data to back this up, but I’ll bet that a survey of Americans would reveal that 75% of us think that we’re nicer than 75% of everybody else. And that means that some of us are lying. We’re not as nice as we think we are. But it’s not our opinion of ourselves that really counts, is it?
John cuts through all the social etiquette and says what he thinks—that the people around him are like snakes in the grass. In my own ministry, it amazes me how often people are drawn to a sermon that points out how sinful they are. People like hearing about sin. They like it when a preacher lays it all on the line and tells it like it is. They don’t like being hit over the head with a message of guilt week after week, but, every once in a while, it’s nice to be reminded just how viper-like we are. It gives us something to ask forgiveness for.
John helps the crowed see what God would see if he were looking at them: vipers, traitors, cheats, and liars. That’s a hard mirror to stare into, but the good news is that that’s not where the message stops. After calling them out, he invites them to change: “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” In other words, he tells them that they are a bunch of rich bastards but also tells them that it doesn’t have to be that way. All that talk of wheat and chaff sounds scary, but there’s gospel hope at the heart of his message.
If I really am that bad, what can I do about it? In the pyramid of turpitude, tax collectors and soldiers were near the top of the stack (or bottom, whichever is worse). Their whole livelihood was based on extortion and threats of violence. Of all the people gathered there, they were the ones most likely to think of themselves in the terms that John used. But, when they asked him what to do about it, the prophet simply said, “Do your job and nothing more.” He didn’t tell them to undergo a radical transformation. He didn’t tell them to leave their jobs and look for new, more meaningful work. Instead, he told them to make a new start right where they were.
Taking a long hard look in the mirror of our sinfulness doesn’t have to be a bitter, hopeless task. Instead, as John preached, such self-examination is the first and hardest step in the life of redemption. You don’t have to change everything about yourself—just one important thing.