Is 11:1-10; Rom 15:4-9; Mt 3:1-12
Think of a husband and wife in a car, the wife tells her husband to turn right at the next junction and by mistake, he turns left. When he realizes what he has done, he says to his wife “I’m sorry love, I went the wrong way.” But if that is all he does, it isn’t enough. His saying sorry isn’t getting them any closer to where they want to be; it isn’t even stopping them getting further away. To get where they want to be, he needs to stop the car, turn it around and go back on to the correct road that his wife told him to take in the first place. That is repentance.
There is a saying: “I changed my attitudes and so everything changed.” This the message of today’s Liturgy of the Word, which focuses on the changing of one’s attitudes and approaches toward life as result of true repentance.
Once, a tourist said to his guide, “you must be proud of your town and the people. I am so impressed and touched by the number of churches in your town, and amazed at the devotion of your people. Surely, this shows how much the people love the Lord.” The guide replied cynically, “Very well, they may love the Lord, but sure indeed they hate each other as hell”. Through his preaching, John the Baptist challenged the various groups of people, inviting them to go through the process of renewal in life.
John said: “Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Today’s gospel is about fruit and fire. The fruit comes from us. The fire comes from God. John the Baptist is the one who sounds the alarm that our fruit is essential, and he is not talking about apples and grapes. The fruit of which John speaks is our good works of service towards our neighbor. John insists that these good works are evidence of our faith and evidence of our commitment to God. Now, this is nothing new to the Pharisees and Sadducees who come to hear John preach. They, like us, are good religious people who understand that God commands us to love our neighbor. But they do not seem to appreciate the urgency of producing fruit now. They seem to presume that they have done enough. They claim, “We have Abraham for our father and surely that is enough.” John is clear that it is not.
In what ways, do we presume that we have done enough, that nothing more is required? Do we say, “I’m not a bad person. I don’t commit any big sins. Certainly that’s enough.” Do we say, “I come to church every weekend. That’s enough.” Do we say, “I worked at the senior center last September? That was good. That’s enough.” All of these things are good things but John keeps urging us to more. John says, “It’s good that you avoid sin but what are doing that’s good? It’s wonderful that you come to Mass on the weekends but how are you serving the poor? It’s admirable that you volunteered to work at the senior center in September but what are you doing today?” John insists that we must produce good fruit not once, not occasionally, but everyday of our lives.
The fruit comes from us. The fire comes from God. And if we’re going to appreciate God’s actions, we need to realize that there are two kinds of fire in today’s gospel. There is a fire that destroys and a fire that creates. Both come from God. When we do not produce good fruit, when we say that we have done enough, then the gospel says we become like barren fruit trees to be cut down and burnt. When we say that we need to do no more, God is not oblivious to our inaction. Then we are like chaff to be thrown into the unquenchable fire. Without good works of service, we must face the fire of God’s judgment.
But that is not the only fire in today’s gospel. There is another fire of which John speaks when he describes the Messiah. He says, “He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit and fire.” The fire of which John speaks here is the fire of God’s love. It is not a fire that burns to destroy but a fire that burns to create. It is a fire that enables us to be agents of God’s goodness. And it is this creative fire of divine love that is the Good News of today’s gospel, because it reminds us that the fruit we need to produce, the good works we need to do should not be motivated by obligation or the fear of judgment. Those good works should flow from the fire of God’s love burning within us. When we realize how much God loves us and has made us God’s own sons and daughters, when we understand how we have the Holy Spirit within us confirming the promise of eternal life, there is no presumption that we have done enough. There is only the desire that we allow that love to flow out in service to others.
We produce the fruit. God gives the fire. So let us, today, open our hearts to the fire of God’s love that burns within us so that it might ignite us to produce good fruits, to serve with joy. It is God’s fire that will allow us to serve, not once, not occasionally, but everyday of our lives.