7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Okay, let’s look at the message John preached. Warm and friendly wasn’t exactly John’s style. He was a direct man who called it as he saw it. So when he looked at his fellow countrymen, he kicks off his ministry by comparing them to a group of slithering, cold-blooded, venomous snakes.
Go with God, my children, he added.
Alright, so John is trying to make it clear to the crowd that they need to take his message seriously. So John directly challenges their self-esteem and their self-image. Which makes sense. We all tend to have a self-image that thinks of ourselves as a good person. We’re the protagonist of our own life story.
The downside to that is that it makes it difficult for us to be objective about ourselves and our actions. We interpret our actions in the most positive light. “Sure, I lost my temper in traffic and ran a bus full of nuns off the road, but think of how many other people I didn’t run off the road.”
So John is slapping people in the face right off the bat to get their attention. He intends to get it out of their heads that they are good people, or good enough that they don’t need to do better.
He warns them of the coming wrath, which could be an allusion to a future Judgment Day or considering the following verses, the Roman invasion and destruction of Jerusalem.
John exhorts them to produce fruit. Fruit in the context of a Christian life involves a reproduction of the love of God within our lives and of us as disciples. In this context, fruit appears to mean simply deeds. Don’t say you’re sorry and you’ll do better and then go home and fall back into old habits. Commit to a change. Be different. Don’t pull the veil back over your eyes and believe that you’re good enough. Require more of yourself, and don’t fall into a trap of equating positive emotions with positive actions. Actions trump words which trump emotions.
John warns them not to trust in their status as God’s Chosen people, as God can (and will) raise up other children for Abraham. God is not particularly concerned with our choice of churches, our race, our gender, or our heritage. God is concerned about our actions.
10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.
A valid question and one I tend to listen for the answer to whenever I listen to a sermon. I’ve heard too many preachers tell people to “produce fruit” or “Let Jesus shine through you” or some other equally vapid piece of spiritual advice that the preacher assumes everyone should know exactly what he means and how they should put that into practice. I often wonder if the pastor telling people generalities like that could answer this question.
John could, so he gives the people some practical advice.
11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”
Don’t put possessions above human need. Share extra if you have it with those who lack.
12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.
Tax collectors were not popular. They were public officials who bought the rights to collect taxes from Rome or from a senior tax collector. They paid Rome a price and then were given the authority to collect the taxes and charge more to recover their investment and make an often very nice living.
They were also viewed as traitors by some for their collaboration with Rome.
John doesn’t tell them to quit their jobs. He doesn’t say taxes are immoral or theft. He just tells them, “Do your job and don’t overcharge the people.” Be honest. Have integrity in your dealings with others.
14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
Don’t abuse your authority over others. Don’t lie about others. Be content with the money God has provided for you and learn to live within your means.
Great advice. I seriously want to start asking that question in church now.