Evidence and Heritage

This coming Sunday is the 3rd Sunday of Advent in Year C of the lectionary cycle. The gospel for the coming Sunday again returns to John the Baptist in Judean wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance. John is filling the role that was the king’s duty: call people back to Covenant with God. He preaches repentance, turning away from sin and turning towards God, and symbolically washes them clean in the waters of the Jordan.

There are three verses that are not included in the gospel for the 2nd Sunday (a voice crying out in the desert, make straight the way of the Lord) and our gospel for the 3rd Sunday. The verses are classic prophetic utterances: 7 He said to the crowds who came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance; and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 9 Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” 

“As evidence of your repentance” The crowds have come to John, but what were they seeking? It is “protection” from the coming wrath of God? Thus reducing baptism to a type of insurance? Not according to John: one must “produce fruits as evidence of your repentance.” The word “worthy” (axios) originally comes from the image of a balance scale. One side needs to weigh the same as the other side. So it has the idea of being “worth the same as” or “equivalent to” or “measuring up to” or “corresponding or comparable to.” In other words, while this verse has often been a battleground for discussions of the role of faith and works in working out one’s salvation, at a deeper meaning the text is referring to the correspondence and balance of faith and works both interdependent upon the other – neither assuming the primacy that belongs to God’s grace alone.

“Fruits” are produced naturally from a good tree. “A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For people do not pick figs from thorn bushes, nor do they gather grapes from brambles. A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:43-45)

Bringing forth the fruits of grace should not be work, but flow naturally out of the repentant/forgiven person. Our emphasis should not be on the fruits per se, but on achieving the balance that our spiritual renewal will naturally produce outward differences. It is in this spiritual renewal that we become children of God and heirs to the kingdom.  It is choosing to be counted among a new family, the family of God.

As John prepares the crowd to meet Jesus, he asks them to consider their identity. John is clear: religious heritage is not good enough. A good heritage can be an advantage, but it is no guarantee of blessing. The Jews of John’s day thought that mere ancestral ties to Abraham would be good enough to guarantee their blessing. Some today think similarly, that one can be born a Christian or that attendance at church makes one a saved child of God. John warns that such thoughts of inherited salvation should not even cross their minds. Though a good environment and roots can be of benefit, they do not yield salvation. Such things are not inherited but are a matter of God’s creative power. That God can raise up children out of stones pictures the reality that God’s power is what produces new life.

But as Douglas Hare (Matthew, Interpretation Commentary, p.20) suggests: “The Christian equivalent of ‘We have Abraham as our father’ is ‘We have Christ as our Savior.’ While trust in Christ’s salvation is a first requirement, it is not the last.” Achieving the balance of grace is necessary.  Perhaps another modern equivalent to “We have Abraham as our father,” might be “I’ve been a member of this church all my life” or “My parents (and grandparents) have been members of this church all their lives.”

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