Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Matthew 3:8 (NRSV)
It’s all fun and games until the Pharisees and Sadducees show up.
John is appalled that these people have shown up to be baptized. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” he asks them, angrily. For John, these people belong to the world system that is coming under judgment. They are not the oppressed, standing with faithful Israel. They are the oppressors, although in different ways.
Sadducees are probably most associated with Empire. In archaeological excavations, we find that the Sadducees lived in luxurious manors and were quick to adopt the cultural practices that Herod himself adopted from Italy. They conformed to the powers that be so they could enjoy the benefits of doing so.
Pharisees in the Gospel narratives actually tended to be anti-Empire, but they coveted the power and position they enjoyed in the Jewish religious hierarchy. They were interpreters and devotees of the Torah par excellence, and they were not shy about letting you know it. Not only did they display pride and self-righteousness, but they used the Torah as a tool of oppression. Trials, punishments, and a healthy supplement of their own traditions held as a de facto Torah to which Israel must conform. They were meant to be teachers of Israel, but instead had become taskmasters and judges, all the while esteeming themselves to be favored of God because of their own righteousness, as evidenced by the power they enjoyed.
John sees both through the same lens – both groups are powerful and have used their power for their own benefit rather than the benefit of the people they serve. They have become utterly conformed to a world system that is about to come crashing down and burned in the fire like a tree that will not bear fruit. They are no longer “true Israel,” and his comments about Abraham bear that out. Basically, belonging to God’s people ethnically will not save them from the judgment coming on the Empire. John is appalled that they would try to escape this by showing up to be baptized.
Perhaps the Gospels are trying to present these groups as petty even in this, showing up only because this is a ritual they can undergo to save their own skins and/or look good in the eyes of the people. Because John certainly isn’t happy about their arrival, but he doesn’t only condemn. Instead, he counters, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
John is not asking them to say they’re sorry. He’s not asking them to be baptized. He’s asking them to turn away from their present way of being into a different way of being that is demonstrated by their actions.
What would this look like in their context? Perhaps a Sadducee would sell his property and give his riches to care for the poor in Israel. Perhaps a Pharisee would give up his teaching job to eat and drink with prostitutes and tax collectors to tell them about the kingdom of God and offer them a better way. This could be as different as there are different people, but John is very clear: this present world system is about to be toppled, and you’re going with it. The only way out is to renounce it and pursue the actions that identify you with the faithful people of God. Join the oppressed and experience their deliverance, or remain with the oppressors and experience the opposition of God Himself.
Baptism is a sign, a seal, a symbol, a ritual, a rite of passage that binds a person so committed to God’s people, but it itself is not that commitment. It is not repentance. It is not the thing that will save them any more than making marriage vows constitute a faithful marriage. But these waters are not for people who are still committed to the world that is passing away.
And what of us? Do we identify with the people of God beyond our profession of faith and baptism? Have we lived that baptism out bearing fruits worthy of repentance? In what ways have we left the world behind to throw our lot in with the oppressed, and in what ways are we still tied to the world that is passing away?
- In what ways have we left the world behind to throw our lot in with the oppressed, and in what ways are we still tied to the world that is passing away?
- In light of how Matthew presents it, what does it mean to repent of sins?
- What does it mean to be conformed to the present world system? Does it always mean overt sin? Can a person just live a regular, normal life and still be completely a part of the world that will be judged?