How to Avoid the Brood of Vipers

A millionaire once told Mark Twain, “Before I die, I will climb Mt. Sinai and read aloud the Ten Commandments.”  Twain reportedly responded, “I have a better idea.  You could stay home and keep them.”

Now that is a hot topic today- the “Ten Commandments.”  In a certain state legislature, a state senator decried the lack of displaying the Ten Commandments in state buildings and local schools.  Later at a press conference, a newspaper editor asked him if he could recite the Ten Commandments.  Needless to say, when he got past the third commandment he stuttered and stammered.  This is the hypocrisy that John the Baptist condemns.  He calls some of the religious leaders “brood of vipers.”  In the words of Benedictine Sister Verna Holyhead, we first must get through “Checkpoint John” to see Jesus.

How can I be sure that I am not a member of the brood of vipers?  We begin with the poetry of Fr. Killian of St. John’s Abbey.  The main point of one of his poems reminds us that we do not betray our consciences in one grandiose singular act.  Rather, you and I betray our consciences little by little, bit by bit, “in those small treasons that are easy to ignore.”  “Small treasons occur when we know what conscience commands but fear, concern for acceptance and approval, or the expected reactions of others, especially those in authority, lead us to ignore.”  These small treasons occur when we fail to speak or act.  And little by little, bit by bit, we chisel away our integrity.  With these small treasons we join that brood of vipers.

What does the Second Sunday of Advent teach us about how to correct these small treasons?  St. Paul says, “Welcome one another,” for welcoming each other we begin to build the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah. To welcome another person in the ancient world was an act of friendship and hospitality.  It is a word of intimacy.  And what St. Paul says is that I need to grant another person access to my heart just as Christ grants us access to his heart.  Befriend each other, he says, just as Christ befriends us.  And the only way to build the peaceable kingdom of Isaiah is to grant one another access to our hearts.

In some of his writings, the business professor, Peter Senge of MIT tells us a story about the tribes of Northern South Africa.  The most common greeting in Northern S.A., equivalent to ‘hello’ in English is the expression:  Sawu bona.  It literally means, “I see you.”  If you are a member of the tribe you might respond by saying Sikhona, “I am here.”  Until you see me, I do not exist.  It is almost as if I do not exist until you acknowledge my presence and look at me.  In Zulu language of South Africa, this idea of looking and acknowledging someone means, “A person is a person because of other people.”

The lack of welcoming someone is due to our busyness.  I am too busy to stop, too busy to speak, too busy to listen, too busy to see you.  And when I do not speak someone’s name I do not see her.  In the words of a South African project manager, “When they spoke about my project, they did not say my name.  They did not make me a person.”

I believe that the sign of a good leader is someone who sees me and respects me.  It is then that I can say, ”On that Day…I was acknowledged as a human being born of God!”  Until we grant people access to our hearts we will be candidates for that brood of vipers.  And the wolf will never be the guest of the lamb; the leopard will never lie down with the kid; and never will we be at peace with one another.

Here at this Eucharist, Christ grants us access to his heart.  In Advent at this table God says, “I see you.”  There is no better place to respond to God and respond, “I am here.”

The Second Sunday of Advent

Cycle A

The Rev. Fr. Dr. T. Becket A. Franks, O.S.B.

Lenten purple


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