Second Sunday of Advent, Year A
Matthew 3:1-12 - link to NRSV text
How do you tell who's in God's in-crowd and who needs repentance and conversion?
It isn't about your family. "God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham," John the Baptizer says, and that saying is a double-edged sword that makes mincemeat of two of the redemptive media in his culture.
I've talked about 'redemptive media' before -- that's the label anthropologists use for things that are seen in a particular culture to make a person a good, respectable, successful. One of the things that caused a person to be perceived as a good person in John's culture was having the right bloodline, the right sort of parents. "Do not presume to say 'Abraham is our ancestor,'" John warns: parentage doesn't matter at all. Being born as Abraham's descendent in the "right" sort of family won't boost your status in God's eyes any more than being born as a gentile to the "wrong" sort of parents will lessen your status in God's eyes. Baptism (at least, the kind of baptism that John practiced) was something that gentiles normally did when they wanted to become part of the people of Israel. Jews are Israelites from birth, though being descended from Abraham by way of Jacob, who was given the name "Israel" after his wrestling match in Genesis 32. John teaches that Israelites will not be saved because of their lineage, though; baptism, and the conversion and repentance baptism signifies, are just as appropriate for Jews as for gentiles. Having the right sort of parents doesn't put you right with God.
There's a second edge to this teaching, though, a second thing that John's culture says you have to do to be a good person, but John says won't advance your status at all in God's eyes: be a parent.
For Romans, having children was not only something that normal people did (you want someone to take care of you in your old age, don't you? and who doesn't find parenting fulfilling in its own right?); it was also your patriotic duty to help repopulate the empire, as the emperor Augustus' domestic policy encouraged.
For Jews, having children was also about more than making sure the family name survived. It was about the survival of the people of Israel, a tiny and often despised minority under constant threat. And fewer Israelites means fewer people worshipping the God of Israel -- no wonder "be fruitful and multiply" (Genesis 1:28) was given as God's first commandment to humanity. But if God can make children of Abraham from stones, then making them in the usual way won't boost your status in God's eyes any more than having the right sort of parents does. Still, John says, you need conversion.
And lest we think that conversion is a matter of coming to have the right ideas about Jesus, John the Baptizer also blows that one out of the water in this Sunday's gospel. It's something that John does unwittingly, not by his explicit teaching, but by his example: John had some seriously mistaken ideas about who Jesus was and what he came to do.
For this point, I'm greatly in debt to Robert L. Webb, who was the first person to point out to me that the Greek word (ptuon) in Matthew 3:12 for the instrument used by "the one coming" is not a "winnowing fork," as most English translations have it, but a winnowing shovel. What difference does that make?
A winnowing fork is used to separate the wheat from the chaff. A winnowing shovel is what you use on wheat and chaff that have already been separated to clear the threshing floor, putting the wheat into the granary to be stored and the chaff into the fire to be destroyed. John says that the one coming after him will come with a shovel to clear the threshing floor. That brings a different dimension to John's saying that the coming one will baptize with "the Holy Spirit and with fire": those who receive John's baptism get to be wheat, and will receive the Holy Spirit, while those who don't receive John's baptism, regardless of who their parents or children are, are chaff, and will be destroyed in fire. And the agent of this terrible judgment, John teaches in the gospels, is Jesus.
John spent his life teaching and baptizing to distinguish wheat from chaff, and he expected that Jesus would be dealing out blessings and punishments accordingly. John had it half right: Jesus came to bless -- to heal the blind and the lame, to bring lepers back into the community as people declared clean, to bring life to the dead and good news to the poor. When John send messengers to Jesus in Matthew 11:2-6 to ask when Jesus is going to deal out that long-anticipated fire to the chaff, that's what Jesus says. Those who were expecting for the outcast to be gathered in for blessing will find their hopes more than fulfilled; those who were eagerly anticipated the destruction of the wicked will be scandalized by Jesus' behavior.
And Jesus says, "blessed is the one who does not (skandalizo is the word here -- it's an omega at the end, and I apologize for not knowing how to get that across in HTML) take offense at me" (Matthew 11:6). Blessed is the one who realizes that my question at the beginning of this entry -- Who's in God's in-crowd, and who needs conversion? -- was something of a trick question.
Having the right sort of parents won't put you in God's in-crowd. Being the right sort of parent won't put you in God's in-crowd. John got that, but he was scandalized by Jesus' dishing out the blessings of the Spirit without the fire of judgment. So in Matthew 11:11, Jesus says that while nobody born in the usual sense of the word is greater than John, the least of those in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. but even then, Matthew doesn't believe that John is permanently shut out of God's in-crowd. John is the climax of the ministry of the law and the prophets (Matthew 11:13), and Jesus says for all to hear that John "is Elijah who is to come" (Matthew 11:14-15), honored as among the chief of God's faithful.
How can this be? Is John in the in-crowd, or is he shut out of it? Trick question, I think. Matthew does use imagery from time to time that would seem to support John's vision that there's an in-crowd and an out-crowd, but he undermines it at least as often. In that sense, Matthew reflects a tension in our tradition. Like Isaiah, Matthew's passion for God's justice inspires harsh terms for those who reject God's prophets and oppress the outcast, but also holds to a vision of all nations streaming into Zion, of the day when "the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people shall see it together" (Isaiah 40:5). Having the right sort of parents won't boost your status in God's eyes or make you one of God's people. Having children won't boost your status in God's eyes or make you one of God's people. Thinking the right things about Jesus won't boost your status in God's eyes or make you one of God's people either; the righteous in Matthew 25's story of the sheep and the goats had no idea that they were serving Jesus in serving "the least of these," and John the Baptizer's serious mistake about Jesus' mission didn't diminish his honor in Matthew's presentation.
I suspect that the difficulty of trying to figure out just who's in and who's out arises because God's love is a circle expanding faster than any person or community can graph. So why not throw out the graph paper? John the Baptizer took a radical step in baptizing all who came to him in the desert, but then he found himself outpaced by Jesus, who came to the people instead of waiting for them to come to him, who showered the blessings of the Holy Spirit and offered his fellowship to any who would accept them, and taught his followers to do the same, going to people of every nation (Matthew 28:18-20).
During Advent, we look for the fulfillment of that work: "the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together" (Isaiah 40:5). God's kingdom is breaking through, and the circle is growing wider now, and now, and now ... It's a good thing that God gives us strength to mount up with wings like eagles (Isaiah 40:31), because even then God's Spirit is moving faster, going ahead of us. We all are in need of conversion, not once, but day by day and hour by hour, and not to try to make God love us, but so we can come closer to perceiving the breadth and height and depth of God's love -- and then it gets broader, and higher, and deeper, always surprising, always moving ahead.
Thanks be to God!
wow. This is a powerful unfolding of the text...thank you!
Posted by: mompriest | Dec 5, 2007 11:04:06 AM
wow, that's the word that comes to mind. What a powerful reading of the text. I never looked at it that way!
Posted by: Jay | Dec 5, 2007 9:50:19 PM
Amen! Not only a refreshing read of the text, but somehow it rings TRUE, about that wideness of God's mercy and grace... and our crazy need to manage, control and limit it. Thank You!
Pastor Nancy (looking for some help in preaching and one who found some in theses ideas!) Thanks again...
Posted by: Nan Hanson | Dec 6, 2007 9:24:18 AM
really good exegesis. i love the idea of god's wildly ever-expanding love/inclusion. thank you.
Posted by: katherine | Dec 7, 2007 1:29:50 PM
me too, on inclusion rather than exclusion. great way of saying it... and that conversion is every day.... personally that's what the axe at the root is about... I asked a Bible study group, "if you were a tree, how effective would a threat of being cut down be to make you bear good fruit?"
Posted by: diane | Dec 12, 2007 12:30:10 AM
shovel or fork - the witness is unmistakeable - wheat is wheat and we know it my its 'wheatness.' And yet, God can turn stones into God's people - equally recognizable. Another good reflection - thank you.
Posted by: Al Debelak | Nov 29, 2010 4:20:49 PM