Matthew 3:1-12
Brood of Vipers, Old and New
by Rev. Jerry Pokorsky
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"  It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: A voice of one crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.

John wore clothing made of camel's hair and had a leather belt around his waist.  His food was locusts and wild honey.  At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.

When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.  And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.  For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.  Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.  Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.  I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.  I am not worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.  His winnowing fan is in his hand.  He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."

Not all scandalous behavior is necessarily shocking behavior. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, scandal is a word or action evil in itself, which occasions another's spiritual ruin. In this Sunday’s Gospel, the scribes and Pharisees (and later in the Gospel texts, the chief priests) were comfortable, fraudulent and perhaps even unaware of their sins, and a spiritual danger to others. Hence, contrary to modern sensibilities, it was a courageous act of kindness when John the Baptist confronted them with: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” How else to dislodge the comfortable from a culture of self-satisfaction and deceit and to protect the innocent who might otherwise join their ranks?

The Jewish faith during the time of Our Lord was a tale of two spiritual cultures. On the one hand, we have the example of Our Lady. Mary was born a Jew. She grew up as a Jew with Jewish parents, Joachim and Anne. Mary lived as a Jew. She composed her “Magnificat” as a Jew. In her sinless person, Mary perfectly sums up and expresses all that is good in the Old Covenant. Her surrender of her entire will to the Holy Spirit through the Angel Gabriel reveals her complete trust in the sufficiency of God’s grace, forming at once the spiritual crowning of the Old Covenant and the beginning of the New Covenant.

In contrast, the same religious society that gave us Joachim and Anne, Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah — and John the Baptist — spawned the scribes and the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the chief priests. They had the advantage of (presumably) exceptional academic and spiritual Jewish formation. They carried the authority of the Mosaic law, an authority recognized by Christ Himself. They were smart, urbane and very clever. And most of the leaders, according to the Gospel accounts, were spiritually corrupt. What had gone wrong?

After the death of John the Baptist, Christ provides more details of their moral corruption. Repeating and confirming the accuracy of John’s holy reproach, Christ sketches a portrait of the poisonous brood. In the 23rd chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, Christ describes the scribes and Pharisees in painful detail: They do not practice what they preach; they are hypocrites; they lay heavy burdens on people but do not lift a finger to help them; their works are performed to be seen; they love places of honor and the salutation “Rabbi”; when they convert others into their ranks, they corrupt them; they are consumed with greed; their sense of the sacred is measured by quantities of gold, not devotion to God; they pay their tithes (to be seen by others) but neglect justice and mercy; they are “blind guides,” attentive to the minute details of the law, but not the true spirit of the law; they are like whitened sepulchers, full of filth and corruption within, plunder and self-indulgence; appearing righteous, but filled with evildoing.

In a word, the leaders of the Jewish faith had become “scandals.” They used their religion and worship for sinful prestige and power, comfort and godlessness. Their indictment by John and Jesus ought to echo as a warning throughout Christian history in every rectory, episcopal residence and papal chamber. Frankly, if a priest is unable to acknowledge the tug of Pharisaism from time to time in his ministry, it is likely he already has given in to sinful appurtenances of authority and privilege. And if that is the case a stinging rebuke would be healthy.

But neither is the laity immune from the sin of scandal. Mahatma Ghandi reportedly said, “I like your Christ, but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” When nearly a third of the world’s population professes Christianity, how is it possible to have such widespread poverty? Why are so many of us indifferent to pro-abortion/pro-choice politicians? How is it that Catholics practice contraception and support “gay marriage” at practically the same rates as the rest of the population? As important as it is to attend Mass on Sunday, it is not enough to be meticulous about Mass attendance. Do we produce good fruit? Regardless of the crucifixes in every room, our scapulars and medals, if we are nevertheless indifferent to the poverty and ignorance around us, we are as materialistic as our pagan neighbors. We have become Pharisees. We have indeed become a brood of vipers.

The image of a brood of vipers is unpleasant. It is more unpleasant to think we might be numbered amongst the brood. And it is most unpleasant to consider the impossibility of fleeing the “coming wrath” because of a failure in repentance. The season of Advent is a season of reacquainting ourselves with the deep truths of our faith and going beyond mere details of the law to root out the “filth and corruption” within. The sacrament of penance should not be reduced to a thoughtless Pharisaical enumeration of transgressions, but a truly life-changing celebration of a sacrament of God’s grace.

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