The Sunday gospel lectionary reading for Advent 3 in Year C is Luke 3.7–17, and it follows closely on from last week’s reading; verse begins ‘He therefore said to the crowds…’ which some English translations omit. The content of his teaching raises some fascinating issues about repentance, judgement, and discipleship, and the way in which the teaching of the kingdom is (or is not!) radical and revolutionary.
It is not completely clear whether the linking ‘therefore’ points us back to the verses from Isaiah that Luke has just quoted, or the fact that John ‘preached a baptism of repentance…’ In any case, the two are closely linked together; as we noted last week, Isaiah’s message was that the one who prepared the way for the visitation of God to his people was to make the crooked straight, a metaphor for change and straightening of life.
John’s greeting to the crowd hardly looks encouraging! Language of ‘brood of vipers’ introduces a persistent theme in this section, that of fruitfulness. The language of ‘brood’, γέννημα, refers to ‘that which is produced’, the offspring, sometimes called ‘the fruit of the loins’; verses like Deut 28.4 link this with other kinds of ‘fruit’, of loins, of land, and of livestock. Whether you are the offspring of vipers, or of Abraham, will be shown by what your offspring is in terms of the kind of life you lead. The play on this idea continues right to the end of our passage, in that the language of ‘fruit’ in the New Testament includes reference to the grain of the harvest, which sounds odd to our ears. But in this way the question of who is our true ‘father’, what kind of life we lead, and how we will fare on the day of judgement are all linked together.
The term translated ‘viper’, ἔχιδνα, has entered English as the name of the spiny anteater, echidna, through an error of etymology—but is in fact a general term for snake which does not allow us to identify a species. In the Jewish and canonical context, snakes are associated with the work of Satan as primeval opponent of God, all the way from the Garden of Eden to the Book of Revelation (see Rev 12.9 which uses the alternative for snake ophis); in a Greco-Roman context, the idea of animal physiognomy would imply that, because a snake slithers on the ground, a snake-like person is ‘cruel, harmful, insidious…, terrible when it decides to be, quick to flee when afraid, gluttonous… Such men are… devoted to evil doing’ (cited in Parsons, Paideia on Luke, p 66). Either way, it is hardly flattering!
There is some irony in his question ‘Who told to flee the coming wrath?’ because, in a sense, it is John who has done so! It suggests that the proclamation of the kingdom of God by John and Jesus is both good and bad news, in that it both proclaims liberty to captives but also judgement for those who have not turned to God’s ways, where we, in contemporary discussion, often treat it as an unqualified blessing. Luke’s gospel is often pointed to as a narrative where judgement has been excised or postponed, particularly in relation to Jesus’ so-called ‘Nazareth manifesto’ in Luke 4—yet it is in this gospel that the fall of Jerusalem is most unambiguously associated with the judgement of God on his people for failing to show the repentance and response that John calls for here (see Luke 19.44).