The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s002g07 Advent 2 9/12/07
'you brood of vipers' Matthew 3.7
I confess that I am astonished at the vehemence of this 'greeting' of the Pharisees and Sadducees by John the Baptist, so early in the gospel of Matthew, and even before Jesus appears on the scene. Mostly we avoid reading chapter 23 of Matthew, for there Jesus own words are similarly vehement against them. And it has come to me that these words of John in chapter 3 and Jesus in chapter 23 railing against religion - act as parenthesis to the whole of Jesus' life and ministry.
Matthew is often characterised as Jesus the new Moses giving humanity the new law. The classic example of this is Jesus words: 'Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven' (Matt 5.20). So the impression we have been given is that our righteousness and devotion must exceed that of these people who were most conspicuous by their devotion, tithing and knowledge of all matters religious. For the rest of us, real people, the idea that we must exceed their devotion and giving is hardly good news.
But, as I have said before, it is precisely these people who thought they knew what God was really like, who were those who had Jesus crucified - for suggesting God was actually completely different and associated with others besides themselves.
Whether this is a construct of Matthew or not, it points to a continuity of the message of both John and Jesus, rather than any discontinuity. John rails against those who love God and are most ostentatious in their religious devotion, not just Jesus. This clearly forms an essential background for the gospel according to Matthew, and the gospel cannot be understood without an appreciation of this. In this sense Herod did the Sadducees and the Pharisees a huge favour, having John killed. Jesus' murder was more difficult to get others to do.
We must get the message that neither John nor Jesus was impressed with the religiosity of people when that implied separation from, and superiority over, others. It is not difficult to exceed the righteousness of a 'brood of vipers'!
And it is against this background that perhaps some of the 'difficult' verses in Matthew need to be set. So when Jesus says: "whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery" (Matthew 19.9) - this is not about whether abusive marriages have to be endured, but to condemn abuse, which can be religious as often as physical or sexual. And when Jesus says: 'Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect' (Matthew 5.48) this is not about moral and devotional perfection, but loving those beyond our circle of acquaintances and those who will reciprocate in kind, as the context makes quite plain.
All this means that you and I and all people are loved. Our faith is one of inclusion rather than one of exclusion. A brood of vipers is rightly feared and no one who includes others has anything to fear from those who would exclude, marginalize and alienate others. We are able to enjoy the expression of our faith without demanding that others imitate it. We are able to enjoy other peoples' expression of their faith as complementary to our own.
Vipers want to poison others, disparaging their devotion to their God and to those they choose to love. God seeks to lift all people to their feet and this is surely a happier way to live!
Returning to my earlier words about this determining what the gospel is all about means that it is not peripheral to the good news but fundamental to it. Matters like the ordination of women, our treatment of gay and lesbian people and remarriage all have to be examined under the focus of our openness to others. If our doctrine concerning women perpetuate abuse within marriage then we are supporting vipers and we open ourselves to the condemnation of both John the Baptist and Jesus. If our doctrine concerning gay and lesbian persons effectively perpetuate their alienation, we are supporting vipers and we open ourselves to the condemnation of both John the Baptist and Jesus.
If our doctrine of the Trinity (or any other doctrine concerning the nature of God) essentially condemns others to eternal damnation we are vipers and we open ourselves to the condemnation of John the Baptist and Jesus. If our teaching on contraception continues to blight the lives of millions, condemning them to lives of poverty, illness and premature death, then we are vipers and we open ourselves to the condemnation of John the Baptist and Jesus.
Everything we do and everything we teach, has to be evaluated by the effect it will have on others. It is trite to comment that this is the essential downfall of terrorism, but my words will suggest that there has been a lot of subtle terrorism happening in the name of the 'christian god' for aeons. The suggestion that terrorism is something new and primarily associated with the Moslem faith is deluded to say the least.
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