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Purging evil from within

Every year on the second Sunday of Advent, the liturgy offers us the preaching of John the Baptist, who prepared the people of Israel for the coming of the Messiah.

Today, as then, the most difficult step to accomplish is understanding that it is a must to get out of the land where we are settled and move away from false theological security that we construct so we can welcome the newness of God’s word.

Not everyone responded well to this invitation. Not all were willing to work a radical change of heart.

The Pharisees and Sadducees found it hard to get involved. They did not trust him, preferring to keep their certainties (vv.7-10). They thought that as children of Abraham, they were already okay with God.

The reproach with which the Baptist welcomes the Pharisees and Sadducees is severe: “Brood of vipers!” He compares them with snakes that inject their poison of death into those who come close to them.

Then he moves on to the invective, the announcement of disasters that are about to hit them. They run the risk of being cut off like a tree that does not bear fruit and of being burned like chaff.

The threatening tone from the lips of John the Baptist is not surprising. The preachers in that time expressed themselves that way. 

This is the language that often appears in the bible. In the context of the whole gospel, the words of the precursor take on a meaning that goes beyond the immediate.

When he spoke of God’s wrath, John had no clear idea of how it would be manifested. The wrath of God is an image that recurs often in the Old Testament.

It is not intended as an explosion of hatred against a victim. It is an expression of God’s love: he is fighting evil, not the person who commits it. He wants to free people from sin.

The ax, which cuts the trees at the root, is given the same function by Jesus as the seccateurs that prune the vine, freeing it of useless runners that deprive it of its precious sap, effectively starving it (John 15:2).

The trees, uprooted and thrown into the fire, are not the people, as God always loves us as children, but the roots of evil that are present in every person and every structure.

They need to be cut off so that the healthy ones can sprout more buds (Matthew 3:10).

The cuts are always painful, but those done by God are providential. They create the conditions for new branches to sprout and produce fruit.

The winnowing fan with which the Lord realises his judgment, is a living image. It describes the way in which God screens the work of every person. In human courts, judges take into account only error and pronounce judgment on the basis of the harm done. They take little account of the good that has been achieved.

In the judgment of God, the exact opposite happens: He, with the winnowing fan of his word, puts every person under the discerning breath of his Spirit that blows away the chaff and leaves only the precious grain on the threshing floor: the works of love, few or many, that each one had performed.


Father Fernando Armellini SCJ
Claretian Publications