Matthew 3:7-10 But when [John the Baptist] saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized, he said to them, “You poisonous snakes! Who showed you how to flee from God’s coming anger? 8 Do those things that prove you have turned to God and have changed the way you think and act. 9 Don’t think you can say, ‘Abraham is our ancestor.’ I can guarantee that God can raise up descendants for Abraham from these stones. 10 The ax is now ready to cut the roots of the trees. Any tree that doesn’t produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into a fire. 11 I baptize you with water so that you will change the way you think and act. But the one who comes after me is more powerful than I. I am not worthy to remove his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing shovel is in his hand, and he will clean up his threshing floor. He will gather his wheat into a barn, but he will burn the husks in a fire that can never be put out.”
These are just some of the harsh words doled about by John and Jesus in the Gospels. The difficult words are often the ones we need most to sit with and chew on. They usually have the most to offer.
After the Reformation and Luther’s famous dismissal of James as “an epistle of straw” there has been a line in the sand drawn between faith and works. A closer study of the Old and New Testament reveals that this line is never drawn in the text. John says, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” (NRSV). Then goes on to describe what happens to a tree that doesn’t bear fruit. The audience of all of the texts of the Bible is an agrarian society that connects intimately and deeply with the agricultural metaphors and parables. Jesus was fond of these.
So, when John compares people to trees, the people probably nodded their heads in understanding. “Yeah, if I had a bad tree I would cut it down before it caused problems or spread disease.” I don’t know enough about agriculture yet to explain this in terms of modern farming practice, but I would venture that we have a parallel in modern agriculture.
John then uses another analogy concerning grain. The winnowing shovel tossed the grain into the air. The lighter chaff would be taken by the wind while the heavier grain fell to the threshing floor, thus separating the wheat from the chaff. So, he gathers the wheat, but the useless part is destroyed.
John’s point is that what is true about trees and grain is also true for people in relationship to God (and each other). God does not want lives that divorce thought and action, or belief and practice. This is the way creation functions and when we go against this, naturally, it causes problems.