Connections 12.08.2019: Privilege

Matthew 3:1-12

Advent is a good time to consider our privilege and what we need to do about it.

This week’s lesson text features John the Baptist. His ministry of preparation for the coming of the Messiah includes calling people to repentance.

Many people from many places come to John. They confess their sins and he baptizes them. The text doesn’t tell us what particular sins they repent of, but we can probably assume they are the kinds of sins that many people in all times need to repent of.

The text also doesn’t tell us what kind of people these are, but we can probably assume they are for the most part the kind of people who work hard, love their families, try their best to get through life relatively intact, hope to get it right more often than they get it wrong, and know that religion probably matters but don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to be too regular about it, although they kind of think they probably should.

You know—regular folks.

The text doesn’t tell us that John gives them a hard time when they come for baptism. They come, they repent, and he baptizes them.

It’s a different matter when the Sadducees and Pharisees come for baptism. John does give them a hard time. In fact, it appears that he refuses to baptize them.

I think the word “privilege” summarizes what is going on here.

The Sadducees and Pharisees are both very important groups of religious leaders. The Sadducees are wealthy and powerful. Many of them are priests. They run the temple. Lots of them are members of the Sanhedrin.

The Pharisees are the most upright people around. They try their best to know what the law says and to do it. Had you asked somebody on the street in first-century Jerusalem who the most moral folks in town were, they would almost certainly have said the Pharisees.

Both groups are privileged in their own way. One wonders if their sense of privilege leads them to come to John for baptism. Maybe they think that, as leaders of the people, they’d better participate in what the people are doing. Maybe they think that, in the interest of preserving their reputations, they should go through the public ritual the people are going through.

In short, maybe the Sadducees and Pharisees think that, given who they are, letting John baptize them would be good public relations.

But John is having none of it: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (vv. 7b-9).

I think he’s telling them that he knows they aren’t really interested in repentance. I also think he’s telling them that he knows that, even if he baptizes them, their lives on the other side of the act won’t reflect a genuine turning toward God. I finally think he’s telling them that he knows they are really relying on their supposed privileged status.

On one hand, most of us—the people leading and learning in our Bible study groups—are regular folks.

But on the other hand, we are also privileged folks. We are reputable and respected. We are accustomed to being treated right. We assume certain things about ourselves, and we assume other people assume those things about us too.

Think of this second Sunday in Advent as “Brood of Vipers Sunday.” How is your privilege getting in the way of your being the follower of Jesus you need to be? How is your privilege standing in the way of your truly repenting?

Discussion

  • Why is repentance important? Is it important only at the beginning of our faith journey, or is it important all through our lives? Why?
  • How does our privilege get in the way of our repentance? How does it get in the way of our following Jesus as we should?
  • How do you imagine the Sadducees and Pharisees reacted to John’s words to them? How would you react to such words?
  • What kind of “fruit” is “worthy of repentance” (v. 8)?
  • Do you think Advent is a good time to focus on repentance? Why or why not?
  • What are some ways our church can and should confront its privilege?

Reference Shelf

The description of John in v. 4 is deliberately intended to remind us of Elijah (cf. 2 Kgs 1:8 to Zech 13:4), though he is not formally associated with Elijah until Matthew 11:14. John signifies a fresh outburst of eschatological prophecy. The impression left by vv. 5-6 is that John is drawing large crowds and that there is a big response to his preaching—many were coming out and being baptized in the Jordan. Verse 7 indicates that many Pharisees and Sadducees came out to hear John and see what he was up to. The fact that they are mentioned together does not mean they were acting in concert, and each group would have their own reasons to be curious about John because John threatened these groups’ authority and control over the people in some respects, especially if he was offering forgiveness outside of the Law’s requirement in regard to sacrifice for certain sins. We will find these two groups mentioned again later in Matthew (16:1-12; 21:45-46). We will say more about them later in the commentary. For now it is sufficient to remark that some common enemies and some things seen as a common threat could have united these two disparate groups on occasion.

John’s preaching is clearly not an example of currying favor with the audience as he calls the Pharisees and Sadducees the offspring of vipers (see also Matt 12:34; 23:33 where it is only the Pharisees). John speaks of an in-breaking wrath of God coming soon, and he challenges his audience to demonstrate concretely that they have repented (hence fruits of repentance). Verse 9 brings to the fore an important point—physical descent from Abraham is not going to be enough to exempt one from the wrath to come. John seems clearly to treat his fellow Jews, including Pharisees and Sadducees, as those who need to act like proselytes and go through the whole process of starting over with God by repentance and baptism, so they can be forgiven for their sins. John says outright that God can raise up new children of Abraham from the stones if need be. He is striking at the heart of the automatic ethnic privilege and provision mentality. Notice how John’s word about a barren tree being cut down and burned at v. 10 is repeated verbatim by Jesus at 7:19. The First Evangelist is not afraid to show a close connection in the preaching of John and of Jesus. Verse 11 contrasts John’s baptism with the baptism of the one who follows John, which will be a baptism of the Holy Spirit and of fire, and so presumably not a reference to a literal baptism, such as Christian baptism.5 It seems clear enough that John expects a human being to be his successor, for he refers to the person’s sandals and to him being stronger than John (cf. Pss. Sol. 17:37), which would be an innocuous and nonsensical remark if it was referring to God. The phrase “the Coming One” may be a messianic allusion (cf. Ps 118:26). Verse 12 indicates that a sifting and judgment is coming on Israel.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 79-80.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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