The Lectionary This Week — The Humbling of the Exalted

Where I contemplate on the Sunday scripture readings according to the Revised Common Lectionary.

All Saints Sunday / Lectionary 31, 02 November 2014 (Year A)

While this Sunday is All Saints Sunday in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I will be going with the Lectionary 31 readings, as they continue a theme of judgment in both the Old and New Testament readings that has fascinated me for the last few weeks.

  • Micah 3:5-12
  • Psalm 43
  • 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
  • Matthew 23:1-12

There are some tremendous parallels between the Old Testament reading, from the third chapter of Micah, and the Gospel reading for this Sunday. I’ll start by putting the entire third chapter of Micah here, because even though the reading begins with the fifth verse, the whole thing is worth contemplating:

1 And I said:
Hear, you heads of Jacob
and rulers of the house of Israel!
Is it not for you to know justice? —
2 you who hate the good and love the evil,
who tear the skin from off my people
and their flesh from off their bones,
3 who eat the flesh of my people,
and flay their skin from off them,
and break their bones in pieces
and chop them up like meat in a pot,
like flesh in a cauldron.
4 Then they will cry to the Lord,
but he will not answer them;
he will hide his face from them at that time,
because they have made their deeds evil.
5 Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
who lead my people astray,
who cry “Peace”
when they have something to eat,
but declare war against him
who puts nothing into their mouths.
6 Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision,
and darkness to you, without divination.
The sun shall go down on the prophets,
and the day shall be black over them;
7 the seers shall be disgraced,
and the diviners put to shame;
they shall all cover their lips,
for there is no answer from God.
8 But as for me, I am filled with power,
with the Spirit of the Lord,
and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression
and to Israel his sin.
9 Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob
and rulers of the house of Israel,
who detest justice
and make crooked all that is straight,
10 who build Zion with blood
and Jerusalem with iniquity.
11 Its heads give judgment for a bribe;
its priests teach for a price;
its prophets practice divination for money;
yet they lean on the Lord and say,
“Is not the Lord in the midst of us?
No disaster shall come upon us.”
12 Therefore because of you
Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
and the mountain of the house a wooded height
(Micah 3:1-12 ESV)

This is a condemnation, of both rulers — the “heads of Jacob” (רָאשֵׁ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב) — and of prophets (נְּבִיאִ֖ים, a word which has its root in נבא نبأ نبو exalting, elevating, informing, but can also have implications of remoteness, distance, overcoming or even something that sickens). The lectionary reading focuses solely on the prophets, but Micah here bundles God’s condemnation of those prophets with God’s condemnation of Israel’s rulers.

The rulers devour the people, and the language here is both graphic and brutal. Those rulers hate what is good, and love what is evil. They butcher and devour the people of God, “my people” in the ESV, “from them” מֵֽעֲלֵיהֶ֔ם (likely referring to Israel) in the Hebrew. These awful rulers are cannibals, slowly skinning, cooking and devouring the people they are responsible for, down to the marrow. Their fate is clear — there will be no help for them when the judgment comes. God will abandon them.

The prophets are not accused of devouring the people. They merely lead the people astray by proclaiming not God’s truth but by speaking solely on behalf of those who pay them. (Verse five confused me for a bit, but realizing the “they” in “when they have something to eat” and “who puts nothing into their mouths” refers not to “my people” but to “the prophets” earlier in the verse.) These are people paid to speak good words on behalf of the rulers, to justify their rule, their power, their acts and deeds. They believe they act in the way of God, with the favor of God. “Is not the Lord in the midst of us? No disaster shall come upon us!” All their pretense will come to nothing when the day comes. They shall be in darkness, and see nothing, they will be able to say nothing, and God will abandon them as utterly as God has abandoned the “heads of Jacob.”

In the end, the rulers and the prophets, though their misrule and their lies, will lead the people to destruction. The coming judgment on Jerusalem is all their doing: “Therefore because of you [plural], Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.”

It’s a fairly straightforward prophetic warning. Except that Micah refuses to claim the mantle of prophethood for himself. It’s as if he’s saying, “I am not a prophet. I am not paid to do this. I have the Spirit and Power of the Lord prompting me to do this.” Here, it’s not a good thing to be a prophet, and Micah’s calling is clearly NOT as a prophet. His calling is something bigger. We might call it prophetic, his condemnation of Israel’s leaders — rulers and spokesmen — but Micah wouldn’t.

Which brings us to Jesus, pronouncing woe upon the scribes and the Pharisees in Matthew 23:

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses ‘seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matthew 23:1-12 ESV)

“Do as they say, and not as they as do,” Jesus tells those assembled of the Pharisees and the scribes. They teach correctly, they just don’t live what they teach. (Oh, that so sounds like the church in just about any age I can think of…) This is the beginning of all the woes pronounced to the scribes and the pharisees, woes that they live in ways which impose “heavy burdens” on those they teach, burdens they themselves are unwilling to take up and carry. This pronouncement of woes takes up nearly all of chapter 23, including what is probably the “nut graf” for this entire section, verse 23:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness [τὴν κρίσιν καὶ ⸂τὸ ἔλεος⸃ καὶ τὴν πίστιν]. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Matthew 23:23 ESV)

It’s not one or the other, not mercy or the teaching. It’s both. And here, a teaching without mercy, without justice, without faithfulness, is empty righteousness.

But it’s actually worse than that. Because these woes are the beginning of a long discourse on the coming judgment against Jerusalem. The woes are God’s indictment against the “rulers and prophets” of Israel. Micah’s pronouncement, which saw the coming of God’s judgment with the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem, is being repeated here.

Even when Jesus repeats the claim from the scribes and Pharisees that “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets,” that is part of his indictment of the people ruling Israel. Such an admission is, he says in verse 31, “witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets.” (This has some interesting implications for those who apologize for the sins of ancestors…)

Jesus ends this with another pronouncement of the coming judgment:

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 flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. (Matthew 23:32-36 ESV)

It’s just as well, I think, that this coming Sunday is All Saints Sunday. No one has to struggle with the few measly words of grace from the 1 Thessalonians reading.

Because there’s a huge question in all this: Where is the good news?

Were I to preach this, I might focus on the last three verses of the assigned lectionary reading, when Jesus tells all those assembled, “The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” And then to talk about how Christ does that, and makes it possible.

But I’m still fascinated here with Jesus’ prophetic — or not, if we take Micah’s cue — pronouncement of the coming judgment. It seems to be central to Matthew’s gospel, and so it needs to be dealt with.

So, a word on what judgement isn’t. Because these are easily misused words. What Jesus (and Micah) aren’t doing, and what those who truly speak prophetically don’t do as well, is blame someone, or some (typically marginalized and powerless) group, outside the community of God’s people, for calamity or disaster. This isn’t about blaming homosexuals, or abortionists, or liberals, or illegal migrants, or atheists, or the president of the wrong political party, or whatever, for earthquakes, hurricanes, plagues, or a bad economy, or whatever. This isn’t about some them who is not us being responsible for whatever is wrong, and it is not about dealing with that them properly in order to get right with God.

The judgment is upon us — and only upon us — the people of God. And this judgment is coming because those with the responsibility to rule and guide us, to teach and lead us, have done that selfishly and cruelly, for their own benefit rather than for the benefit of those they rule. Because our elites are venal, incompetent, self-centered, greedy, and evil.

Yes, evil.

Now, the terrible thing of this is that while the judgment may be upon us all because our leaders are incompetent, stupid, and cruel, the entire people of God will suffer. When the Babylonians arrive to lay siege to Jerusalem, they won’t just kill those in charge and then go home. The guilty and the innocent alike shall suffer from war, starvation, and disease. And if that wasn’t unfair enough, all this is happening not because of what we did, not really, but what was done ages before us. We are bearing the burdens, and paying for the sins and faithlessness, of our ancestors.

This may be why Jeremiah, and Jesus in chapter 24, counsel flight. I remember staring up at the burning World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, and thinking: “All smart little animals will run fast and hard right now, because when those buildings come down, they will respect neither person nor position.” If this judgement is solely a temporal one, then flight from the disaster is possible. And absolutely necessary if a faithful remnant is to survive.

Which leads me to one more point. A lot of the covenantal language of Deuteronomy and Leviticus — the covenant in which God promises to bless Israel if it keeps its end of the bargain with God, and expel it from the land if is does not — has an “if-then” construction, and is phrased in terms of real human choice. And perhaps Israel could have kept its end of the deal. Who knows.

But Israel did not keep its end of the bargain, and the prophets are not warning Israel to improve its behavior. They aren’t telling Israel to care for the poor and do justice in order to keep the Babylonians at bay. It’s too late for that. The consequences outlined in the Wilderness are coming true. (Though Jonah suggests change is possible.) The disaster is upon Israel, either right there at the walls or looming on the eastern horizon. It is too late to make the kinds of changes that will save the people and the leaders who have brought this mess upon us all. At this point, the only redemption coming is for a faithful remnant who flee the disaster. Who keep the faith, who gather and worship, who take risks by living out the generous faithfulness of our crucified and risen Lord in the same world that put him to death.

Now, whether this judgment is immediate and temporal — the Jewish War in which Jerusalem was besieged and the Temple destroyed — or eternal, or both, I don’t know. I’m not sure it matters. I have been considering the fate of the Church in the West in terms of God’s judgment, with Modernity and Enlightenment as metaphorical Assyrians and Babylonians, and am considering what a book along those lines would look like.

But as followers of the crucified and risen one, we must never forget that judgement is never God’s final word. Redemption is. And that’s always good news.