What Must We Do?

Details stained glass window John the Baptist baptising Jesus

John the Baptist journeyed through the district of Jordan proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  This Sunday’s Gospel reading from Luke starts with a question put to John which many of us may have asked ourselves – “What must we do?”   But some of the people who came to John to be baptised were referred to by him as “a brood of vipers”.  We read elsewhere in the gospels that this was also a term used by Jesus himself.  For example in Matthew 12:14, Jesus called the scribes and Pharisees a “brood of vipers” to get their attention and not only warn them about judgment day but also, because vipers are venomous, to indicate to His people how dangerous the Pharisees could be.

The Pharisees were the religious leaders in Israel during the time of John the Baptist and Jesus.  They seemed to care more about outward religious form than genuine faith. Over the years, many of them had become corrupt, legalistic, hypocritical and would eventually bring about the death of our Lord.

The viper was regarded in those times as an evil creature.  It could be deadly but it was also seen as devious, as when the viper that attacked Paul was hiding in firewood (Acts 28:3). The Hebrew Scriptures, which the Pharisees knew well, associated the serpent with Satan in Genesis 3.  Use of the term “brood of vipers” with reference to Pharisees could be seen to imply that they bore evil qualities, a notion clearly reinforced by Jesus in John 8:44 where He says the unbelieving Jews belong to their father, the devil. When John and Jesus called the Pharisees a “brood of vipers,” they were pointing out that these men were deceitful hypocrites (Matthew 23:15), also dangerously blind leaders of the blind (Matthew 15:14) and wicked in their murderous intent (John 8:37) to eventually bring down Jesus.

Our Advent readings so far have shown us that Jesus coming to us in human form is the best chance for mankind to be redeemed, the message of Christmas being that God cares deeply for us and so would never abandon us to captivity, sin and misery.  While we celebrate God’s goodness to us this Christmas, we might reflect whether a “brood of vipers” attitude or behaviour can exist amongst us today.  If so, who might these modern-day Pharisees be?  Can they be present in various guises or assume different roles?  Here are some possible examples to ponder:

  1. Remember the scribes and the Pharisees who could not rejoice to see the paralytic freed from a life of dependency and pain?  Would people who cannot feel happy to see good things coming our way today be examples?
  2. In Jesus’ day, people marvelled at seeing and hearing God in human form and the works He performed but the brood of vipers were annoyed because, for them, they saw a man speaking blasphemy! A person who is negative or find faults in everything or in everyone might today be a parallel.
  3. We can see challenges to racism in the stories of the Good Samaritan and the Samaritan woman at the well. A person who praises God and His creation on the one hand but then is racist towards his brother because of their origin or colour might be seen as part of the brood today.
  4. The Pharisees twisted Scripture with many laws imposed upon believers but did not always burden themselves with the same regulations. How often are we seeing this type of practice today?

We probably all have some Pharisaic characteristic in us!  John the Baptist called for people to try and put things right with God, not in a show of ceremony but in a display of being changed by their repentance.   Let us not miss Christ this Christmas but ensure that our words and actions bear good fruit as a result of reflection, prayer and being washed clean!

We pray: Lord Jesus, help me to recognise you in those I meet this Christmas.  Free my heart from negativity, teach me to wish others well and use me as your instrument of joy and peace to the world. Amen.