ADVENT II – 2016 – What So Incites Our Savagery
“The little threshing floor /that so incites our savagery was all/from hills to river mouths-/revealed to me/while I wheeled with eternal Gemini./My eyes then turned again to the fair eyes.” Dante: Paradiso, Canto XXII
“His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Matthew 3: 12.
John the Baptist came preaching a baptism for repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Mt. 3:2. This is the story of metanoia. This is also the message in Q, which is the earliest evidence there is for the preaching of John. The gospel of Mark begins with John rather than with Jesus. It seems clear from the evidence that John is a prophet and preacher who announces the end of the present era and the dawning of a new era for humanity. He stands within the apocalyptic tradition proclaiming the coming eschatological judgment of God, and calls for metanoia. People came to him for baptism, “confessing their sins,” and hoping for entry into the kingdom of God. He gathered a sizeable enough following, (“the people of Jerusalem and all Judea was going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan”), that he became a political threat, and was consequently executed by Herod.
He was also a threat to the religious leadership. He denounced them in his preaching. In the pericope under consideration, John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him for baptism. He addressed them with stinging words. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Indeed! Who could have warned them? John was certainly aware that there were other prophets and preachers in the same territory. He certainly knew of Jesus of Nazareth, who not only was a close relative, but also one who came to John to be baptized. In Matthew 12:34, Jesus himself uses the phrase, “You brood of vipers,” to refer to some of the Pharisees who were accusing him of being in league with Satan. In Matthew 23 where Jesus proclaims woe against the Pharisees he refers to them again, “You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” Mt. 23:33. It is not likely that Jesus would have been the one who warned the Pharisees and the Sadducees to flee from the wrath to coming by seeking baptism from John. There is no evidence for that, and yet is there no answer to John’s question, “who warned you to flee?”
It is more likely that they come to John for Baptism under the pretense that they believe his prophecy. But John saw through this pretense, and knew that they were only trying to flee from the wrath to come, and not really interested in metanoia or baptism. The source of their warning could be none other than the devil himself. In I John 3:8 they are described as “children of the devil.” In Rev. 12:9, we read of “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.” The relationship of Serpent, Devil and Satan seems to have been an accepted part of apocalyptic preaching. Satan is referred to 8 times in The Revelation of John. Those who oppose the Divine belong to the synagogue of Satan, Rev. 2:9; 3:9. Is it possible that both John and Jesus, who are apocalyptic preachers, have the creation story in mind when they refer to their opponents as a brood of vipers? It could make some sense from the point of view that both John and Jesus intend a new creation coming upon the heels of the demise of the present era. Jesus warns his followers in Mt. 10:6 “to be wise as serpents.” Just as John uses water for baptism, so also the serpent can use water for his own purpose of destruction. Rev. 12:15. Who warned them to flee? The answer must be their father the devil.
What exactly is this wrath that is to come? Clearly the New Testament concept points in the direction of divine judgment. Paul writes in Romans 1:18, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” The wrath to come, that is, the wrath that is to be revealed as the new age is dawning is the judgment of God against ungodliness. It is a battle of the divine and the counter-divine. It is the theme and substance of the apocalyptic preaching of the New Testament. The revelation of God’s righteousness in Romans 1:17 and the revelation of God’s wrath in 1:18 is as precise a definition of the apocalyptic imagery of the two ages, this world and the world to come. Paul speaks of “the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” Romans 2:5. And Revelation 6:17 reminds us that the great day of wrath has finally arrived. The Revelation of John 6:12-16 gives the content of the wrath that is to be revealed, the wrath from which the Pharisees and Sadducees seek to flee. In Revelation chapters 8 and 9 there is the opening up of the seven seals and seven trumpets, and what is unleashed upon the earth of this day of God’s wrath. But when the seventh trumpet is opened, there is a shout of victory. “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his messiah.” Rev. 11:15.
Paul says that the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith. This means that those who are seeking to flee from the wrath to come under false pretenses can understand neither the baptism of John nor the metanoia which must precede it. Their pretense shows clearly that they do not understand the true nature of metanoia. It cannot be faked. Genuine metanoia is the complete and irreversible transformation of the human being. It transports the human being immediately from this age into the age to come where the kingdom of heaven has already dawned. Consequently, metanoia is not an action taken by the human person, however good that action may be. Metanoia is truly and comprehensively a divine act, the granting of grace that removes the human being from the imminent existential threat of death and grants the human being that new life, described as eternal life, in the kingdom of heaven. However this divine act of grace does not completely absolve the human from actions that demonstrate that that the transformation has already and finally taken place.
For this reason, after John has denounced the Pharisees and Sadducees, he insisted, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” He is telling them that if they want to flee in earnest from the wrath to come they must submit to genuine metanoia, as a result of which they will bear fruit worthy of it. This is clearly a metaphorical statement. “Fruit” must stand for something else. What is it that is worthy of repentance? John is encouraging them to take some kind of action, to demonstrate something special, without defining it for them. In Matthew 23:23 in the midst of proclaiming woes to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus says they ought to have practiced “justice, mercy and faith.” These might well be the fruit worthy of repentance. In Micah 6:8, there is a clear understanding of the fruit of metanoia. It is this, “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Galatians 5: 22 gives a comprehensive list of fruits of the Spirit. Galatians 6: 8 says, “Let us not grow weary in doing what is right,” and in verse 10, “let us work for the good of all, especially those of the family of faith.” Hebrews 12:11 speaks of the fruit of righteousness. In Romans 6:13 Paul encourages his readers to become instruments of righteousness. John the Baptist speaks of fruit worthy of repentance. In the same breath he speaks of Abraham, saying that they cannot presume to take Abraham as their ancestor. Why this statement? What has Abraham to do with fruit worthy of repentance? In Genesis 18: 19 it is stated that God has chosen Abraham so that he, his children and his household may “keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” Hebrews 11 presents Abraham as a man of faith. In Genesis 15:6 Abraham believed the Lord, “and this was counted to him for righteousness.” Paul quotes this passage in Romans 4 where he has a long discussion on the faith of Abraham, and the content of this faith is righteousness. Consequently, I conclude that when John the Baptist speaks of the fruit worthy of repentance he is speaking precisely of righteousness, out of which proceed justice, mercy and faith.
Righteousness is itself a quality of the divine. It is not something that one can possess. It comes as an act of revelation. In Romans 1:17, Paul writes that “the righteousness of God is revealed through faith and for faith.” Indeed, “the one who is righteous will live by faith” The righteousness of God is revealed, that is, for the most part it is hidden until it is appropriated by faith and for faith. It is faith that brings righteousness out of hiding, just as it is faith that brings the divine out of hiding. The divine abides in concealment, that is its cover. It comes out of hiding to pronounce judgment and to establish grace as the new foundation of life in the new age. This is ambient grace, that within which “we live and move and have our being.” It always remains the grace of God.
“Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and cast into the fire.” Matt. 3:10. Again this is the language of metaphor. The trees stand for something other than trees and the root for something other than roots. John the Baptist is saying that the foundation is about to give way, and everything that stands upon it will come tumbling down. Mark 13, “the Little Apocalypse,” may be used as an example of what is to befall the people. The “good fruit” of which John the Baptist speaks is none other than “fruit worthy of metanoia.” The tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and cast into the fire. Fire is a theme of apocalyptic proclamation in the New Testament. The word occurs 27 times in the Revelation of John alone. The one who is coming after John will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” The Holy Spirit itself has the capacity to appear as fire. Acts 2:3. Notice that the one who comes after John the Baptist does not baptize with water. Something has shifted. Something new is about to take place. Baptism takes on a completely different image. Fire, which is associated with the judgment of God, now is the substance of baptism. Baptism is a cleansing, a purifying, that must take place before entry into the new age. In Luke 12:49, Jesus says, I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” Mark 9:49 warns, “Everyone will be salted with fire.” Baptism by fire separates one from this age and makes one ready for the age to come.
(I presented the following ideas elsewhere, but they seem relevant here). Fire discloses, uncovers something without which humankind is not complete. Heraclitus thinks fire is light. Light illuminates. It makes visible what has been hidden. When Matt. 3:11 says that Jesus will baptize with fire he indicates that the outpouring of fire upon humanity brings something new to light. This cannot be the unquenchable fire of verse 3:12, which surely is a metaphor for judgment. Jesus baptizing with fire is something other than judgment. Something is hidden that will be revealed by Jesus in this baptism with fire. John the Baptist does not say what is to be revealed, only that Jesus will baptize with fire. Fire shines brightly. It is light. Baptizing with fire is baptizing with light. He who is the Light will pour out upon humankind his light, that is, he will pour out Himself. John the Baptist may be indicating that Jesus will give Himself for humanity, that baptism with the Holy Spirit and with fire is about the sacrifice that Jesus will make, and therefore when Matthew says that Jesus will baptize with fire he is conveying the idea of the Passion of Christ. If this argument holds, then I may conclude that the life of Christ is Passion, from beginning to end. Further, those who are baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit are forever the Passion of Christ. The Revelation of John conveys the same idea: the Passion of Christ is the Passion of the church. The fire is not judgment. It lights up the way into the Passion, and the Passion is sustained by its light. The divine which no longer inhabits fire as in the burning bush has, by its exit, made room there for the church to exist in the fire and be illuminated by its light and enlightened by its wisdom. The church exists in the fire and is not consumed. It may be that today the church is the burning bush, the place of revelation, the final proclamation that God is still with us.
John the Baptist now changes his metaphors. He speaks of the winnowing fork that is in the hand of the one who comes after him. The imagery is certainly that of a cleansing, a clearing, a separation of one thing from another, and the different destinies of those separated.
I wonder if this prophecy of the threshing floor is a veiled reference to Matthew 21:12-13, the Cleansing of the Temple? The Temple of Jerusalem was built upon a threshing floor that David bought and paid for. He set up an altar there, and later after the death of David Solomon built the Temple upon the threshing floor. (I Samuel 24:18-25; 2 Chron. 3:1-2). None of this would have been new or strange to those who listened to John the Baptist. As religious leaders they would have known the history of the Temple, from the time of David to their own time. They could not have failed to see that John was talking about an event that would take place within the Temple itself. If this is so, the cleansing of the Temple, making room for the arrival of the Divine, would fit into the framework of apocalyptic themes upon which the Passion of the Christ is built. The Cleansing of the Temple is already a separation of the wheat from the chaff, a theme of judgment that is at the foundation of the apocalyptic eschatology of the gospels.
Dante, in his travel through Paradise, while he was still in the constellation Gemini, had a revelation of the earth. He saw the earth “the little threshing floor that so incites our savagery.” The little threshing floor, symbol of faith and religion, is also symbol of our savagery, the ungodliness against which the wrath of God is revealed. Whether the winnowing is of the Temple of Jerusalem, or of the whole earth as Dante saw, the imagery is that the divine is about to bring in a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth. Revelation chapter 21 tells of the victory of the divine over the counter-divine. The new Jerusalem was descending from the heavens. “I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb.” Rev. 21:22. The church which has become church because it exists as metanoia, as Passion, embodies the transparency of the divine that continues to announce itself as the hope for an eternal future, an eternally transformative life of grace.
The prophecy of John the Baptist has been fulfilled.