In with the Vipers
John the Baptist doesn’t make any friends by calling everyone brood of Vipers. Now note that Jesus doesn’t contradict John. To understand their shared message, we need to focus on what is healthy and not, relating to pride and shame. What would John, or Jesus, make of the boast, “I am proud to be an American” or the current rush in France to buy tricolor flags since the Paris attack?
Shame is related to who we are, as opposed to guilt that involves what we do. We can have false pride relating to both who we are (things outside our control) or relating to things we have done (boasting of our accomplishments). John tells the good Jewish people who come to him, not to have unhealthy pride in the fact that they are “children of Abraham” (Luke 3:8). Similarly, I don’t think we should have false pride in the fact that we were born Americans. If I had been born 10 miles south of where I was, today I would be speaking Spanish and worrying about Mexican politics. False pride is sinful and can lead to a lack of compassion.
I suspect, but it is not recorded, that John the Baptist welcomed and spoke graciously to non-Jewish immigrants living near the Jordan River. Jesus certainly showed compassion and ministered to those who were shamed. That is, he honored those experiencing the inverse of the above, false pride about things you have no control over. We have very little control over our race, nationality, age, sexual orientation, or gender. To be shamed for any of these is a bad thing. To be caught in a war, or some other crisis that causes one to immigrate, is an unfortunate circumstance that deserves our compassion.
John’s sermon makes it clear that there are some things that we can do, and be proud of. We can share a coat with someone who is underdressed for the winter (Luke 3:11). We can strive to do our job, whatever our occupation may be, in a way that honors God (Luke 3:12-14). Such things are their own reward. When we think that being good saves us, or that we should get stars in our crown because of our behavior, then we fall into the other trap of pride, self-righteousness.