Finding the courage to give what little we have
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “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. 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 thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 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 3:1–12
There was a cartoon making the social media rounds of John the Baptist, arms flailing in anger, pointing to some religious bigwigs. In the picture were also snakes slithering away. The text read, “Happy Advent! You brood of vipers.”
This passage makes me chuckle and cringe at the same time. Chuckle because I think about that cartoon, and cringe because John is calling out the corruption that is often lurking behind good deeds. John is angry with the hypocrisy of the religious elite of his day. They claim to be righteous, but they are really just a brood of vipers — snakes that slither away so as not to get consumed by fire. Any farmer will tell you how snakes slither to safety when the stubble in the fields is burned to prepare for a new planting. Those in John’s day would have had this image in mind when hearing “brood of vipers.” Many today are turned off by organized religion because words and actions don’t seem to match one another. During the holidays, especially, you hear stories of scams claiming to help others when really the money donated lines a pocket that doesn’t need lining. Vipers are out there, but so are obedient sheep, like my neighbor.
He’s a logger. The trail I run on borders his property, which has a huge pile of logs to be cut into firewood. Firewood isn’t cheap, but for those in my rural community it is a bit more affordable than oil or propane. There is many a household I have come to hear about that relies solely on firewood. These are families, too, that often run out of wood to burn just as winter’s deep freeze descends. I know that pile of logs is my neighbor’s bread and butter.
So, imagine my surprise when one December I learned that he wasn’t selling the wood, but rather giving it away to families in need. Now this neighbor isn’t a churchgoer, but when he heard of a severe shortfall in the village’s community fuel fund, he took it upon himself to give what little he had to help others. How many times do our words of loving others that we toss around in the church match our actions outside of a cloistered building? It’s a question we need to always ask, because the temptation for self-preservation is always great, especially in the church.
This past summer, I smiled when I heard of a Presbyterian church whose working-class members took their COVID-19 stimulus checks and gave that money to help others. I also remember one Christmas when a parishioner who struggled to buy gifts for loved ones told me he was going to challenge himself to match the amount of money that he spent on gifts and give it to a local homeless shelter. There will always be a brood of vipers in this world. But there are many more who are finding the courage to give what little they have.
God, giver of my daily bread, may I not fear scarcity, nor may I seek abundance. Help me instead to see that with you I have just enough, and just enough is enough to share with others. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.
In preparing for Christmas, challenge yourself to match the amount that is spent on family gifts and give to an organization in need. Especially keep in mind organizations that help eradicate the hunger that is rising due to the global pandemic.
Donna Frischknecht Jackson