"you brood of vipers!" - Jesus

The gospel of Matthew has this well known tirade of exasperation against the religious leaders who opposed Jesus. It's sometimes referred to as the "seven woes." He's furious with their religious duplicity. We get famous metaphors from this like "straining a gnat and swallowing a camel," and "you all are like white-washed tombs, pretty on the outside, full of rot on the inside." One of the outstanding admonishments is, v.23 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others." In other words, the religious leaders were too busy with weighing out their spices for the church to be bothered with justice, mercy, and faith. Their priority was retaining the power they enjoyed over serving others, as God's representatives. Jesus calls them actors (the translation of the greek word, hypocrite) and blind guides and fools and then let's fly with this one, v.33 "You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?"
Narcisse snake den, Manitoba
This seems to be a plaintive question, not rhetorical. Jesus goes on to say,
32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechari'ah the son of Barachi'ah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation 37 "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! 38 Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate.

Jesus foretells the hell coming to Jerusalem a generation later when Roman armies besiege it and destroy it, evicting the Jewish people for the 2nd time in their history. Why did this happen? They rebelled against the Romans. The gospel written after the fall of Jerusalem, seeks to warn it's readers against the idea of God's kingdom being about land, but rather about hearts. The religious leaders in Jerusalem wanted to retain the property and lost it and hundreds of thousands of lives of their people in the siege.

The topic I want to come back to is the use of the insult, "snakes." Jesus' cousin John the baptizer used the same insult a few years before Jesus. Yes, the religious leaders were accusers and liars like the Satan of their origin story in the garden of Eden. But is Jesus dehumanizing them? I don't think so because he speaks of his desire to gather them together and protect them in v. 37. The sentence alone, without context, is dehumanizing. In context, the exasperation flows out of a deep love and its rejection.

I think the same holds true when the people are referred to as sheep, God as their shepherd, and those who come among them to take advantage of them as wolves. It's not like calling people sheep is a compliment either. It's in a context of demonstrated love and concern.

I wrote earlier about the time Jesus reconsiders his use of a slur against a Gentile woman here. He was changed by love for her full humanity. He learned obedience from his sufferings, according to the letter to the Hebrews.


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