July 4, 2012 by jmar198013
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’” Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But 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 wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Mat 3:1-12 ESV)
I recently read the results of a Pew Research Center survey that indicated that 54% of churchgoing folks in the United States agreed that the use of torture against suspected terrorists is “sometimes” or even “often” justified. That’s over half of self-proclaimed believers. I think that says something about how we’re scripted, and it’s not too different probably from some of those who first heard John the Baptist’s message: they expected the wrath of God to fall upon their enemies, the terrorists and the tyrants of their day. They envisioned a violent and bloody judgment upon the infidels and the unfaithful. So when they heard John talking about the ax being laid at the root of the tree and the chaff being thrown into the fire, no doubt they had very specific pictures of who the unfruitful trees and the chaff were supposed to represent. And perhaps when we hear John’s message today, so do we.
It would have been really easy for John’s hearers to come away with the idea that the Pharisees and Sadducees were the trees marked for being cut down. Especially since John called them a “brood of vipers” and had them needled for the wrath of God to come upon them any day. Most people were neither Sadducees nor Pharisees. And the truth is, between the rich Sadducees’ unjust collusion with the Roman terrorists and the Pharisees’ condescending tsk tsk-ing at most everyone round about them, I’m sure a lot of the peasants in John’s audience would have been thrilled to see them get the eschatological spanking they so rightly deserved.
And again, today, it’s really easy to take people that we don’t like or that frighten us or scandalize us or do things we find morally repugnant and substitute them for the Pharisees and Sadducees John railed against. Can’t we just envision a gigantic cosmic ax chopping down our enemies? That’s really gratifying. It’s like how after 9/11, Jerry Falwell said it was God’s punishment on gay people, while Jeremiah Wright said it was God’s punishment on white people. Meanwhile, most of the rest of us just got more and more nervous whenever we went to get on a plane and some swarthy person with a a turban or a keffiyeh was on the flight with us. And it gets to the point where you get so scared of that other person who’s not-like-me that it doesn’t bother you if they’re getting rounded up and water boarded, so long as they’re not a threat to you. And if you can use religious rhetoric to justify that, it makes it even more tolerable. We need to be really, really careful with those old prophetic texts, because too often it has been the case that these texts have been used to justify doing all sorts of horrible things to Native Americans, Jews, gay people, capitalists, Communists, Muslims, and even other Christian traditions with whom we disagree.
What Jesus reveals is that, yes, the ax is at the root of a tree; and yes, rotten branches and useless chaff get thrown into the fire. John’s words are surely about judgment. But the tree and the chaff aren’t people or groups of people. These represent a systemic dysfunction and the effects of that malfunctioning system. What Jesus reveals is that the whole system of scapegoats and violence-in-the-name-of-justice, of picking insiders and outsiders—that this whole system is not only damned but contains within it the very ax that sits ready at the root. “From the forest itself comes the handle for the ax.”  It’s cosmic dualism, that Manichean worldview that carves us up into convenient camps of good guys and bad guys with no room for equivocation. Jesus came to destroy that whole way of thinking and being.
There is a contrast between John the Baptizer and Christ that I’m not certain John even understood. John still held onto dualism—the “us-versus-them” mindset. John saw repentance as contrition, and railed against the sinfulness of others. He was so scandalized by the sinfulness of first the Sadducees and Pharisees, and finally by that of the tyrannical king Herod that he became a player in the very melodrama of moral shabbiness he condemned. As one author has put it, “Scandalized by Herod’s depravity, John merely became the occasion for another depraved act.” Jesus viewed repentance differently. To be sure, it involved contrition for one’s sinfulness, but he also understood that this did not happen by means of being confronted with one’s own depravity in the most bellicose manner possible. No, Jesus seemed to inspire repentance by creating thrusts of grace that were so startling, and so tangible, that those who experienced them came to see a loving and forgiving God as a plausible counter to the hateful and vindictive world they knew.
We need to get a firm grasp on the notion that an “us-versus-them” mindset—the type that will allow over half of our fellow believers to say, “Torture is alright so long as it saves lives”; essentially, “the ends justify the means”—we need to understand that this way of thinking is not only out of harmony with what God reveals to us through the ministry of Jesus, but that it cannot save anyone from their sins—most certainly not us. “People do not turn in a new direction of their own power. The past holds them so tightly that something must happen to create a new opportunity.” It is against this backdrop that we should view the Nativity, the Cross, the Resurrection, for here is the ax at the root that John spoke of. It was the old comic strip “Pogo” that made famous the line: “We have met the enemy, and the enemy is us.” We humans judged Jesus an unfruitful tree and cut him down; the Spirit of God raised him up again. We are the ones who do the chopping down; God is the one who brings forth new life from the stumps we leave in our wake.
Prayer for the bread: Father, Jesus used to break the cycles of shame that divided his society into “good” and “bad” people by coming into the homes of sinners, traitors, crazies, drunks, and loose women and sharing a meal with them. May we remember this morning that we are yet another generation of fools who ought to be ashamed of ourselves, but for the fact that Jesus loves us enough to make himself present with us through this meal. As enemies that you freely forgive, we beg of you, let us see the Cross, how it gives the lie to all ways of being which embody “us-versus-them.” Cleanse us of all hatred and vindictiveness. Free us of racism and sexism, of all the “isms” and “phobias” which make us hostile to our neighbors. May we live in peace with both friends and strangers. Amen.
Prayer for the cup: Father, as we drink this cup, may we remember that from the wounds of Christ flows the balm that is for the healing of the nations. May the Word that took root in the darkness of Mary’s womb spring forth anew in us this season, and every season. May that Word emerge in our labor, and mature into a fine vintage from which all will drink deeply at the end of this age, when you spread out your great feast for all nations, and you dine upon death, swallowing it up forever. Amen.
 Matisyahu, “Chop ’em Down.” Live at Stubbs’. JDub Records, 2005.
 Robert C. Tannehill, Luke, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 78-79.