Gospel Reflection for the 2nd Sunday of Advent
“You brood of vipers!” This is more than an unfriendly greeting that John is giving the Pharisees and Sadducees. It is a loaded statement addressed to them, and one found on the lips of Jesus in Mt. 12:13. John is addressing them as the offspring of the snake, the symbol of Satan in Genesis. We can imagine their astonishment. By the Law they are righteous. They know every detail of the written law and the oral tradition handed down to them. They are meticulous in observing every detail and ensuring that other people do the same. How can they be the brood, the offspring, of evil? Just in case they haven’t got it, John hastens to let them know, “Don’t go calling on Abraham as your father. That’s not going to work.” Being a true offspring of Abraham has nothing to do with the DNA, nor the adherence to traditions. Abraham, that ancestor in faith, represents the one who listens to God, and who can leave behind customs and traditions to follow where that voice leads.
Now, in case we are feeling any way smug about this, in Luke’s version John calls everyone who comes out to him for baptism a brood of vipers. John is not some new guru in town, or in this case in the wilderness, drawing crowds to himself. John has a mission. He is preaching that the reign of God is at hand, but repentance is required. His baptism may be a symbol of repentance, but the fruit of repentance is a changed life. That changed life is part of the wrath to come. Real repentance is the great upheaval of our lives. It cannot be avoided by stepping into the waters of the Jordan. It cannot be avoided by our baptisms and rituals of repentance. It cannot be avoided.
What about this beautiful image of justice and tranquility presented by Isaiah? Here justice reigns, innocence leads and opposites dwell together in harmony. Is it a pipe dream or an achievable goal? I suggest that it is an achievable goal, if we go through the upheaval of true repentance.
But the good news is that already the axe has been laid at the root of the tree, so that the necessary chopping down can begin. Every tree and shrub and branch of our living that produces no fruit or bad fruit can be chopped off. Then from their stumps the new shoot of the repentant heart can sprout and grow into a living tree that bears a lot of fruit by the good works it accomplishes.
In Eden, the problem tree was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The new trees, raised up from the new shoots, can become the trees that fill the earth with the knowledge of God. For, in Isaiah’s opinion, it is that knowledge of God which fills the earth that brings about God’s reign of justice and tranquility.
Elizabeth Ferguson, OP