But when [John the Baptist] 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. (Matthew 3:7-8)
In Godfather III Don Michael Corleone had become a rich and powerful figure in both the underworld as well as the legitimate business world. The film opens with Don Corleone being disguised with public respectability by the Church in exchange for a huge sum of money. Later, Michael travels to the Vatican to finalize a business deal with corrupt Church officials. If successful, it would make him one of the richest men in the world. While in Rome, he meets Cardinal Lamberto—a true priest. In one of my favorite scenes Cardinal Lamberto retrieves a stone from an ancient fountain and smashes it to reveal that, even though the stone had been lying in water a very long time, the water had not penetrated—the stone was perfectly dry on the inside. He then explains to Michael:
The same thing has happened to men in Europe. For centuries they have been surrounded by Christianity, but Christ has not penetrated. Christ doesn’t live within them.
We find a similar situation in Matthew 3:1-17. Just like the corrupted government officials of Judea, the Pharisees and Sadducees were involved in a great hypocrisy. Disguised by religious respectability and pious confessions of faith, they preyed on the masses to enrich themselves. Those responsible for liberating people with the Word of God, instead used holy words to extort and enslave their brothers and sisters. A “Holy Land” had become a vast criminal enterprise—a sanctified protection racket—with holy men acting as a religious mafia hidden in plain sight.
Enter John, known as The Baptist. He’s as mad as hades and he’s not gonna take this any more! It had become clear where the true loyalties of the religious elite lie. The interests of a corrupt ruling class had become the interests of a corrupted religious elite. The two were deeply entangled. But God was not fooled! Justice was coming. And religious vipers would not be able to slither away fast enough to escape the flames.
While Pharisees and Sadducees may be a thing of the past, this does make me wonder. Shouldn’t American Evangelicals at least be uncomfortable when seeing a preacher—who makes nearly a million dollars a year as a front-man for two “non-profit” organizations— publicly pronounce rain as a sign that God has blessed a ruthless billionaire? Think about it. No, wait, seriously, think about it.
According to Philip Yancey, “C. S. Lewis observed that almost all crimes of Christian history have come about when religion is confused with politics.” Politics entice us to trade love for power (the ability to bend others to our will against their own). Yancey observes that this is “a temptation the church has often been unable to resist.”