Luke 3:7-17 gives us a rather sound look at the advice given by John the Baptist to the crowds, reading: “Then he said to the multitudes that came out to be baptized by him, “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” So the people asked him, saying, “What shall we do then?” He answered and said to them, “He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you.” Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, “And what shall we do?” So he said to them, “Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.” Now as the people were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not, John answered, saying to all, “I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.””
How would John the Baptist fare if he came to contemporary American society and preached a message of repentance and impending judgment such as we have read above? It is hard to say, but if such a person were around nowadays they would have the same sort of thing to tell us as Abraham did. They would remind us that no race or class is privileged to be free from the sorts of problems that need to be repented of. They would point to the need of practical action to demonstrate the repentance that is claimed, that a change in life is a demonstration of genuine faith and proper belief. This standard is a fair one that includes specific insight based on the sorts of tasks and the sorts of temptations that are available to people based on their profession. Given the opportunity and temptation that people have to exploit others based on their position, it is of the utmost importance that we remember to use our offices, such as we have them, to serve others and not to take advantage of them.
How would people in our age bear fruits worthy of repentance, and to whom should these fruits be obvious? There are at least four groups of people to whom John the Baptist speaks. There are some people who view their identity as making them immune to the need to repent. Throughout history a great many people have viewed their ethnic (or some other aspect) of their identity as making them righteous and viewed other identities as being automatically in need of some sort of repentance. For example, the Jews of Jesus’ time thought that their identity as children of Abraham made them automatically privileged as part of God’s people, just as many contemporary black people and minorities view their race as making them automatically superior to evil and racist white people who have benefited from generations of imaginary structural racism. In contrast to those who believe in some sort of identity politics, all human beings (other than Jesus Christ) are natively rebellious against Jesus Christ and need to repent and change.
In addition, there are people here who have positions that allow them to exploit and take advantage of others and are given specific information in how to avoid doing so. Those who have a lot more when it comes to material possessions are told to be generous with those who have less, assuming we are dealing with the deserving poor here. Tax collectors, those who have the opportunity to exploit others financially, are told to avoid assessing more tax than is required and not to enrich themselves at the expense of others, advice that would be worthwhile to follow for not-for-profits as well as public agencies. In addition soldiers (who in this case are acting like police) are told to be content with their wages and not to intimidate others, which is good advice for police officers in general in their dealings with the general public. To the extent that we have the power to take advantage of others, we should avoid doing so, and this is not particularly complicated to understand.
In such times as our own, it would be good if people would view themselves as needing to show fruits worthy of repentance in general rather than having this be targeted by people with ideological and political axes to grind to manipulate people through some sort of guilt for imaginary systemic injustice that they claim to be victims of. To the extent that we think of ourselves as just and enlightened and progressive, we will tend to rebel against the recognition of ourselves as needing repentance. It is easy to call upon others to repent and to seek some sort of advantageous treatment as a result of being seen as a prophet calling others to repent and change, but it is hard to recognize that there are no privileged classes of victims in the eyes of God, who sees all as sinners in need of repentance and change. To the extent that our view disagrees with that of God as expressed by John the Baptist, we may consider ourselves to be broods of vipers whose commitment to repentance may be rightly called into question.