John the Baptist knew exactly why the Pharisees and the Sadducees were seeking his baptism. They were there because it looked good. These religious authorities recognized that the people respected John and were following him. The crowds were with John. The Pharisees and Sadducees wanted to cash in on this. Appearance-wise, public relations-wise it looked good to be there. But their hearts were not there (in fact their hearts were far removed) and John recognized this.
“When he (John) saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance…” (Matthew 3:6)
Despite the appearance these men were not open to the truth of what John was proclaiming. They were not open to the call of conversion.
They were hypocrites. Here, it is helpful to note that the word “hypocrisy” has its origin in the theater arts. Hypocrisy simply meant “to recite”, to represent something on a stage, but not truly “to be”. A hypocrite is a pretender who wears a mask and not an authentic person. In hypocrisy we cease being persons and we become characters.
I recently read the following distinction which I find helpful:
A fictive character is nothing more than the corruption of an authentic person. A person has a face; a character wears a mask. A person is drastically naked; a character is only clothing. A person loves authenticity and reality; a character lives a life of make-believe and artifice. A person lives his or her own convictions; a character follows a script. A person is humble and light; a character is cumbersome and unwieldy.
Enlightened by this distinction between the person and the character it can be seen that John’s denouncing of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Sadducees is a denouncing of that temptation we all know; the temptation to live life merely as a character rather than as a person. Fundamentally, it is the all-to-common temptation to be complacent and satisfied with being less than what we are indeed meant to be. Further, John’s denouncing is also a pointing and a proclamation: a pointing to the coming messiah as the “true person”, “the fully authentic one” and a proclamation of the good news that it is by our encounter with this messiah who comes to us that we ourselves can cease being mere characters and begin to become persons. We can know authenticity.
But, our spirits are weak and this journey to becoming an authentic person frightens just as it also beckons. On our own we cannot achieve it but … we are not meant to make it alone. We must remember that we are Christians and not stoics.
“I,” says John “am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Matthew 3:10)
It is the Holy Spirit – active in our lives and in the life of the Church – who calls us to authentic personhood. The Holy Spirit is that fire that purifies just as it burns.
The work of the Holy Spirit is indeed a true mystery in the life of each believer but its fruit is evident – going where we did not think we could go, achieving what we never believed we could achieve, giving of self like we never thought we could and becoming who we are truly meant to be.
John’s denouncing of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Sadducees is both a pointing and a proclamation for us. In his denouncing, this “greatest of all the prophets” points ahead to Jesus alone as the truly authentic person and he proclaims that it is in our encounter with him and in our baptism with the Holy Spirit that we, ourselves, also become persons and not merely just another character reciting on a stage.
Below are found the lyrics for the classic Advent hymn, “On Jordan’s Bank, The Baptist’s Cry”. Notice the call to authentic personhood that is only found in the advent of our Lord. “…Stretch forth thine hand, to heal our sore, And make us rise to fall no more…”
On Jordan’s Bank, The Baptist’s Cry
On Jordan’s bank, the Baptist’s cry
Announces that the Lord is nigh;
Awake, and hearken, for he brings
Glad tidings of the King of kings!
Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
Make straight the way for God within;
Prepare we in our hearts a home
Where such a mighty Guest may come.
For Thou art our Salvation, Lord,
Our Refuge, and our great Reward.
Without Thy grace we waste away,
Like flowers that wither and decay.
To heal the sick stretch out Thine hand,
And bid the fallen sinner stand;
Shine forth, and let Thy light restore
Earth’s own true lovliness once more.
Stretch forth thine hand, to heal our sore,
And make us rise to fall no more;
Once more upon thy people shine,
And fill the world with love divine.
All praise, eternal Son, to Thee
Whose advent sets Thy people free,
Whom, with the Father, we adore,
And Holy Ghost, forevermore