Our viper-like ways


Welcome to my weekly ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s opinions, doubts, fears, and hopes about modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.

Third Sunday of Advent
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Luke 3:7–18

It’s happening in the US right now, but this sentiment goes back to the earliest of human times…

There have always been people who claim to be, in one way or another, “God’s chosen people”. In America, many of them are Christians — but not just any Christians, REAL Christians. Not those fair-weather wannabees. No, no. These people follow God’s rulebook to a tee while everyone else deviates from it. They’re IN and everyone else is OUT.

Warrior-like, tribal in nature, and sometimes seen wearing badly designed red hats and white polo shirts, they’re justified in their righteousness. And since God totally has their backs, they can bully others around and get away with it.

But I won’t stop there…

Even outside of the religious realm, everyone is virtue signaling these days. If it’s not your impeccable fundamentalist Christianity, it’s your impeccable morning routine ripe with green juice, the Headspace app, hemp yoga pants, and perfecting your squat while you answer emails.

And if you’re rolling your eyes at them, well, you’ve found some other way to justify and place yourself as ‘better than’.

I know I have...

We’re all so righteous. Yet kids are dying at the border, the opioid crisis sweeps through our country, and suicide rates continue on a hockey-stick curve up-and-to-the-right…

In this week’s gospel, John the baptizer (who I’ve always envisioned as a more woke and less Hollywood version of Russell Brand) looks out at these same people and has had enough. He’s fired up and he’s taking his congregation to task for being the brood of snakes that they are, pulling rank as the “righteous, chosen people”.

John calls them all out for their sanctimoniousness and tells them that a little water splashed on their snakeskins will do them no good. He says that what counts is their lives — not the contrived label they’ve slapped on themselves to justify their viper-like ways.

It was a wilderness preaching smackdown and John was on fire.

What follows his opening assault is a small handful of practical requests.

  • If you have two coats, give the needy one.
  • If you have extra food, give it away.
  • Tax collectors — stop extorting people, only collect what’s required.
  • Soldiers — stop shaking people down and no blackmail. Be happy with your pay.

He’s not asking them to leave their vocations altogether (Roman soldiers and tax collectors weren’t exactly seen as upstanding vocations in John’s wilderness ministry). He’s just asking them to chill out and stop being such huge, obnoxious, hurtful idiots.

But he ends it on a positive note (while maintaining his characteristic radicality). He’s going to go ahead and do this baptism in the river. But he wants his congregants to know that he merely plays a small role in what’s to come. He steadies and prepares them for the Christ who will set fire to their nonsense, rearrange their ways, and put everything in its proper place before God.

This foreshadowing may have been inspiring for his congregation, but when Herod caught wind of this, he wasn’t as enamored with it. John the baptizer was locked up.

If you’re one of the self-righteous people I named above (or that I didn’t name above), there are a couple of things to reflect on here…

First, know we’re all in this together. We’re all self-righteous in one way or another.

Second, the point here isn’t to leave your lot in life and head out into the wild to commit your life to an ascetic spiritual path. But can you just dial it back? Give to those who need it. And know that, no matter what your foibles and flaws are, God is always ready to swoop in and make all things new.

This third week of Advent, we await this Christ light and prepare our hearts to be turned from stone to flesh.

If even a little.