In the Gospels, we are first introduced to John the Baptist as the aged Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s miracle baby boy. We read about his leaping for joy in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary visits her cousin. Now in this weekend’s Gospel, we jump ahead in time to the adult John, a seemingly odd character for sure. He is a desert-dweller wearing strange clothes and eating strange food. He is a fiery character with a challenging, revealing, and life-changing message. He is a charismatic prophet who attracts crowds to hear his message and instills in them the desire to acknowledge their sinfulness, to repent, and to be baptized by him. But not all who encounter him are able to hear, to respond, or to repent.
The harshness of John the Baptist’s preaching to some of the Pharisees and Sadducees in this weekend’s Gospel – “You brood of vipers!” – is a scathing judgment, indeed. John’s harsh language, unrelenting judgment, and uncompromising challenge demand a wholehearted response: Repent! It is not good enough to claim, “Abraham as our father.” Repentance is a wholly personal choice, a personal act, a personal demand to change.
Repentance always changes one’s life. Changing our lives is very concrete and visible. Our attitudes and behaviors noticeably change for the better when we choose to repent. Repentance at the root means to change one’s mind. Only then can one act according to God’s plan, thus changing our lives. When each of us changes our mind – repents – by conforming our will to God’s, then there will be “no more harm or ruin” (First Reading), but rather the peace and harmony described by the Prophet Isaiah.
Repentance brings not the poison of striking vipers, but the “good fruit” of counsel, strength, knowledge, and delight in the Lord (see First Reading). Repentance brings the favorable judgment that not only invites us to the Kingdom of Heaven but is the peace and harmony portraying the already “at hand” of God’s reign. The choice to repent has consequences beyond the immediate. To repent takes us beyond John’s baptism of water which brings a new human way to live. To repent is to embrace Jesus’ baptism “with the Holy Spirit and fire” which brings us to a new way to live in God.
John directs to everyone his strong warning to repent. Some “acknowledged their sins,” and expressed their desire to live “in the Kingdom of Heaven” by submitting to John’s baptism with water. The “Pharisees and Sadducees” resisted repentance, claiming their descent from Abraham was enough for them to belong to “the Kingdom of Heaven.” John’s challenge to repent elicits two responses. Which response do we choose? Whether Jesus will gather as wheat or burn us as chaff depends on our God-given free will and free choice.
We shouldn’t dismiss the Pharisees and Sadducees of the Gospel too quickly. John’s harsh judgment of them must bring us to look at what is within us that opposes God’s ways. One good way to discover what needs to change within us is to listen to the judgments others make about us. Whenever we hear negative things about ourselves, we tend to be hurt and defensive, which is quite natural. Perhaps the hurt would be eased if we remember that such judgments may reveal to us ways we need to repent. Here is the Paschal Mystery reality of our lives. True, we already share in the new Life of Jesus’ Resurrection. At the same time, we have not yet rid ourselves of all that opposes God’s ways and for which we must repent.
May Saint Michael the Archangel defend, guide, protect, and intercede for us always!