FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER EPIPHANY
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Holy God, you confound the world’s wisdom in giving your kingdom to the lowly and the pure in heart. Give us such a hunger and thirst for justice, and perseverance in striving for peace, that in our words and deeds the world may see the life of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
The prophet Micah does not mince words. He lets his people know in no uncertain terms that God is not interested in superficial piety. Sacrifices and elaborate religious rituals do not impress God. Neither does God care whether our coins bear the inscription “In God we trust,”” or whether the town green has a crèche, or whether we greet one another with “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” or whether God is mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance. Furthermore, I think Saint Paul would be horrified at our use of the cross in decorative jewelry, on national flags or as a bland symbol to mark graves. I think he would say that our broad acceptance of the cross as a decoration robs it of its symbolic power. He would probably be delighted that atheists are seeking to remove it from places of secular prominence. They, at least, understand that the cross has meaning-even if it is one they don’t like. As for Christians who champion such shallow piety in what they perceive as a war against them, may they lose the battle-and the sooner the better.
So what does God want? You know damn well, says Micah: do justice, love kindness; walk humbly with your God. Is that too much to ask? Justice is no abstract notion for Micah. A nation is judged by how it treats the most vulnerable within its borders. When rulers “abhor justice” and “pervert equity,” by taking bribes and selling the power of government to whomever can pay for it, there is little chance those without means can hope for justice. Micah 3:11. Though care for the poor, the resident alien, the widow and the orphan is imbedded within Israel’s covenant with her God, the Gospel of Matthew assures us that all the nations will be judged by this same standard. See Matthew 25:31-46. Nevertheless, because Israel and the church have these sacred commands enshrined in their scriptures, they bear a unique responsibility for ordering the lives of their communities around them and bearing witness to them as God’s gracious intent for all of humanity.
The shape of injustice in our culture includes oppression of the poor, racism, sexism and homophobic bigotry. According to Feeding America, a nationwide network of food banks, in 2015 there were 43.1 million people (13.5 percent of all Americans) living in poverty. Broken down by age demographics, 24.4 million (12.4 percent) of people ages 18-64 were in poverty; 14.5 million (19.7 percent) of children under the age of 18 were in poverty; and 4.2 million (8.8 percent) of seniors 65 and older were in poverty. During that year 13.1 million children lived in food-insecure households. According to a 2015 Survey by the United States Conference of Mayors, the leading cause of American hunger is the inadequacy of the federal minimum wage which stands at just over $7 per hour. Though some states have enacted minimum wage limits to as high as $11 per hour, the cost of living in these states most often exceeds the norm. Justice requires that workers be paid a living wage and that those unable to work are supported out of the community’s resources.
Injustice also takes the form of racism, sexism and the structural support for white privilege in government, education and commerce. Nothing spurs controversy more than bringing up race or sexism in polite company. I get particularly visceral responses to any mention of white male privilege. “Don’t call me a racist and I’m not privileged!” a middle aged man recently said to me. “I grew up in a working class family. I worked my way through college and I’ve worked for every dime I made since. I didn’t steal anything I own from anyone else!” I can understand that sentiment. I, too, worked hard to gain the financial security I enjoy today. I had no contacts in the legal field where I worked for eighteen years and I have no relatives in the hierarchy of the church either. In both cases, I had to sell myself and prove my competence from scratch. Nobody ever “got me in” anywhere.
Nevertheless, I know that there were numerous doors of opportunity open to me that for persons of color remained closed. Nobody in the corporate world in which I moved ever said “Don’t put a black person on that team,” but when the word went out to “get someone who fits in with the team,” we all knew what that meant. So too when a job required “a commanding presence” it meant don’t even think about giving this to a woman. I never had to wonder what effect my race was going to have in any interview. I never had to worry about balancing my projection of confidence against the potential of being thought “bitchy,” or wonder whether keeping a job required flirtation, tolerating wandering hands or giving sexual favors. All of these concerns that are ever present for persons of color and for women never crossed my mind. That is called white male privilege and, whether one chooses to believe it or not, it exists in education, government, the work place and, sadly, the church.
If the past election has had any positive effect, I think it has made it nearly impossible to ignore the deep seated racial hatred and the fear and loathing of strong and competent women among an increasingly insecure, frightened and violent white male population. A blue and white campaign button sported at the RNC convention last summer illustrates the point, “KFC Hillary Special: 2 fat thighs 2 small breasts…left wing.” Another contained a picture of the former Secretary of state that read: “Life’s a bitch. Don’t vote for one.” Mr. Trump’s proud boasts of grabbing women by the genitals and kissing them without their consent didn’t budge his supporters. The victims who came forward to contest his claim that he was “only joking” when he made these remarks were swiftly silenced after he threatened to use the power of the presidency to retaliate against them. It should not surprise anyone that over 500,000 women in Washington D.C. and two million world-wide came out to march in support of a woman’s right to live without fear of discrimination, harassment and abuse.
Mr. Trump’s disparaging remarks about the inability of an American born judge of Mexican heritage to preside over the case of a white man like himself and his vow to deport twelve million Hispanic undocumented immigrants drew cheers from white nationalist groups, one of which famously gave Nazi salutes and cheered “Hail Trump” the morning after the election. The week following saw a surge in racial bias incidents. For example, the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour in Silver Spring, Maryland had its sign advertising Spanish services ripped and vandalized with the words, “TRUMP NATION WHITES ONLY.” Hateful rhetoric begets hateful actions.
Though Mr. Trump has not expressed the same animus toward gay, lesbian and transgendered folk, the platform on which his party ran supports the repeal of marriage equality, the gutting of protections for families of same sex couples and support for the thoroughly debunked pseudo treatment of homosexuals known as “reparative therapy.” The very day of the election a web page on the White House Website dedicated to identifying health and anti-bullying information for the LGBT community was scrubbed from the site. Sexual minorities are understandably concerned that the days of “open season” aggression against them might also be making a comeback.
According to Micah and all the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, justice means standing where God stands; speaking God’s words; and confronting the powers and principalities that oppose God’s reign. That means standing with the hungry, the poor, women, people of color, members of the LGBT community and all other persons endangered by this angry tidal wave of hatred and contempt. In so doing, those of us who have lived our lives under the shelter of white male privilege need to learn to see life in this culture of ours from the perspective of those who have not. Here’s a poem by Claude McKay to give us a porthole into that reality.
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
Source: The Liberator, Vol.2, No. 7 (July 1919) Claude McKay, born Festus Claudius McKay, was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance. His poetry celebrated peasant life in Jamaica, challenged white supremacy in America and lifted up the struggles of black men and women struggling to live their lives with dignity in a racist culture. You can learn more about Claude McKay and read more of his poetry on the Poetry Foundation Website.
We know very little about the life of the prophet Micah. He was a prophet of the Southern Kingdom of Judah and a contemporary of Isaiah, the Judean prophet who preached in the 8th Century B.C.E. Micah preached against the corruption, oppression and idolatry of the Judean monarchy presided over by descendants of King David. Unlike Isaiah, however, who appears to have been a Jerusalem insider with access to the throne, Micah was an outsider from the obscure town of Moresheth. Micah predicts destruction for both Judah and the Northern Kingdom of Israel as a consequence of their sin. Interspersed throughout the book of oracles bearing his name are declarations of salvation and promises of liberation. Most scholars believe that these writings come from a prophet living sometime later than Micah preaching to a generation that had already experienced the judgment of defeat and destruction Micah foretold.
In Sunday’s lesson Micah employs a much used literary technique of Hebrew prophets. He places the controversy between God and God’s people of Judah on the stage of a mock court proceeding. The prophet summons his people to answer God’s indictment of their sinfulness, calling upon the mountains to act as witnesses to the proceedings. Vss. 1-2. First God, as plaintiff, sets forth his complaint: “O my people, what have I done to you? In what way have I wearied you? Answer me!” vs. 3. God proceeds to recite his acts of salvation for Israel from the Exodus through the wilderness wanderings “that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.” Vss. 4-5. The prophet weaves together a string of God’s saving acts to illustrate God’s faithfulness to Israel. Verse 4, in which God reminds Israel of his faithfulness in the Exodus, echoes the preface to the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Exodus 20:2. Obedience to these commands, not mere superficial acts of worship and piety, are the proper response to God’s faithfulness.
The narrative of Balak, king of Moab and Balaam referenced in vs. 5 can be found at Numbers 22-24. It contains the delightful story of Balaam’s talking ass. Immediately thereafter follows the not so delightful story of Shittim, also referenced in vs 5. Numbers 25:1-5. The people of Israel began to intermingle with the people of Moab, attending their feasts and marrying their daughters. At the Lord’s bidding, Moses responded by hanging the “chiefs of the people” in the presence of the Lord. He then directed the judges of Israel to “slay his men who have yoked themselves to Ba’al of Peor,” the Moabite deity. You won’t find this little tale in any Sunday School text. Gilgal was the spot at which Israel crossed the Jordan River into the land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua. See Joshua 3:14-4:24. Thus, the Lord brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness and safely into the Promised Land in spite of her frequent rebellion and unbelief. After such steadfast faithfulness on God’s part, what excuse can the people make for their faithless behavior?
Having no defense to God’s charges, the people respond in verses 6-7, asking what they can do to atone for their sins. They ask whether God will be pleased with more burnt offerings and, if not, whether perhaps the sacrifice of their own children would suffice. The implication here is that the people believe sacrifices, offerings and religious observances can buy God’s favor. They are asking the prophet how much it will take to do the trick. But the prophet replies in verse 8 “don’t give me any of that! You know very well what God wants” (my paraphrase). God is not interested in more offerings or religious observances: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Vs. 8. The power of this response is its stark simplicity. God liberated Israel from Egypt not so that she could become another Egypt oppressing her own people, enslaved to idols and filled with violence. She was given commandments-not because God needs or desires them, but because Israel needs them to preserve the freedom bought for her by her gracious God. These commandments call for obedience to God above all else and love of neighbor. Without such obedience and love, sacrifices, worship and prayer are worth nothing.
It is worth noting that the prophet calls us to walk humbly with our God. Few things frighten me more than people who are certain they know what justice requires. People who are certain have no further need of learning. People who do not learn do not grow. People who do not grow regress to the most infantile level of understanding, i.e., Justice = Retribution. They lose their ability to appreciate ambiguity and to see all sides of every conflict. Every battle is a struggle between good and evil neatly divided along religious, racial, cultural or religious lines. It is always “us against them.” Humble people recognize that genuine learning exposes our lack of understanding and reveals to us how very much more we have yet to learn. Paradoxically, the more you know, the more you realize how much you have to learn. Justice, therefore, must never be done in righteous anger but always with a sober knowledge of the limits placed on human understanding and the flawed nature of all human tribunals and enforcement mechanisms.
Archeologists have recovered a number of religious inscriptions instructing worshippers in the ancient world about the preparations to be made and conditions to be fulfilled before entering a shrine or temple. These texts usually set forth a list of cultic requirements for cleansing, proper ritual attire and acceptable offerings. Psalm 15 focuses instead on the characteristics of character and ethical conduct as critical for determining worthiness to approach the Lord in worship. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, W, Cambridge Bible Commentary on the Psalms, (Cambridge University Press, 1977) p. 65. The requirements for approaching the temple of Israel’s God have nothing to do with placating the desires of a ritualistically finicky deity, but have everything to do with conduct of the worshiper toward his or her neighbor. While this psalm may have been used as a liturgy for entry into the temple or tabernacle during the period of the Davidic monarchy, it is also possible that it was used in preparation for making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem by postexilic Jews.
The requirements for “sojourning” in the tabernacle of the Lord and for dwelling on God’s “holy hill” are simple: truthful speech, faithful friendship, speaking well of one’s neighbor and honoring one’s promises. But to say that this is all very simple is not to say that it is easy. The old RSV translates the latter half of verse 4 as “who swears to his own hurt and does not change.” In short, those who would dwell in community with God’s people must speak the truth even when it is inconvenient and contrary to self-interest. Furthermore, the truth spoken is not subject to change or revocation under the rubric of “explanatory statements.”
Speaking truthfully does not come naturally. It must be learned. Here I think we could learn a thing or two from our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers who practice individual confession. Properly practiced, confession is nothing less than learning to speak truthfully about yourself. A good confessor is able to help you understand and see through the excuses, lies and delusions you use to justify your conduct. More importantly, he or she is able to point you toward new attitudes and new behaviors that cultivate the virtues of honesty, faithfulness and humility. Only so is it possible to begin speaking the truth “from the heart.”
Hebrew Scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann suggests that this is a psalm of “orientation.” Along with the similar Psalm 24, this psalm “reflects only the well-oriented community, one that has not yet addressed a theologically ambiguous or morally disruptive world.” Hence, “it is not inappropriate that access to God be measured in terms of conformity to what is known, trusted, and found reliable.” Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies, (c. 1984, Augsburg Publishing House) p. 42. As much respect as I have for Professor Brueggamann, I do not share his view of this this psalm. Rather than a naïve faith untested by trials, I believe this psalm reflects a mature prophetic faith. Its message fits neatly into the text from Micah and reinforces the understanding of Israel’s God as one who is interested chiefly in how his people treat one another. Jesus emphasizes this point in his own central teaching: “The first [commandment] is ‘Hear, O Israel; the Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:29-31.
This lesson is perhaps the most critical to understanding Paul. Some of his more superficial critics excoriate Paul for ignoring the life and ministry of Jesus to focus only on his crucifixion. Such criticisms ignore the body of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in which Paul argues that the life and ministry of Jesus, so far from being irrelevant, are still ongoing within the life of the church. So far from constituting past data, Jesus’ earthly ministry is a present fact in communities where disciples of Jesus continue to break bread in his presence and build one another up in love with the gifts the Spirit pours out upon them.
This love of which Paul speaks is no sentimental ideal. It is a tough, gritty sort of love discovered among people with differing viewpoints, various cultural prejudices and conflicting agendas. We have already seen that the Corinthian church was no happy little commune. It was a place of fragile egos, power hungry factions and loose morals. A person who tries to practice a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:7) in such an environment is bound to get his or her heart broken-or crucified. Yet such seemingly “weak” love in the presence of arrogance, pride and coercive force is exactly the life that Jesus lived. Through such “weakness” God demonstrates a love that is so strong that not even death can prevail against it. This “weakness” of God that embraces evil with love is stronger than the divisive forces at work in the Corinthian church seeking to tear it apart.
In this age of polarization in politics and general social discourse, I believe the church is called to reflect an alternative way of living together in community. More than ever, it is critical that we do not become a microcosm of the culture wars raging around us and that our discourse not degenerate to the point of firing the same hackneyed ideological torpedoes dressed in scriptural garb over the familiar fault lines dictated more by political/commercial/social interests than by any recognizable faith commitment. There is a better way to be in community. The church at Corinth, for all of its shortcomings, was such a community. At least the Apostle Paul felt that way about it.
Last week in Matthew 4:12-25 we witnessed the commencement of Jesus’ mission and his proclamation: “the kingdom of heaven has drawn near.” Matthew 4:17. Crowds from all over the region are drawn to Jesus and, seeing them, he ascends “the mountain.” Surrounded by his disciples (four at this point that we know of), he sits down and opens his mouth to teach them. It was customary for rabbis to sit when teaching their disciples and the Semitic idiom, “he opened his mouth” adds a note of solemnity to the beginning of this very public address. Nolland, John, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 2005 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 193. The location of the “mountain” or whether it actually was anything like a mountain is altogether beside the point. Matthew’s use of the term is a literary device drawing parallels between Jesus’ teaching and the revelation of Torah, though as with all Hebrew Scriptural parallels we should not push this one too far. Matthew does not wish us to understand Jesus as another Moses or the Sermon on the Mount as another set of commandments. Jesus’ teaching here follows upon his proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount is the shape that kingdom is to take among his disciples as the new age is actualized in the midst of the old.
Thus, the “beatitudes” cannot be interpreted as disembodied sayings printed on a refrigerator magnet. They must be read in the light of the exciting news of heaven’s dawning kingdom that Jesus has begun to inaugurate. For the sake of this kingdom, it is a joy to suffer hunger, mourning and persecution. The hunger for righteousness is a sweet hunger anticipating satisfaction. Persecution at the hands of an unbelieving world only reinforces the disciple’s confidence that the battle has been joined and that s/he is on the victorious side. There is nothing masochistic about the beatitudes. They do not promote suffering for suffering’s sake. They promote joyful anticipation of God’s reign of plenty for all people and a willingness to sacrifice gladly all for the sake of that gentle reign.
For this reason I do not buy into the notion advanced by some scholars that Matthew has “spiritualized” the more earthy beatitudes set forth in the Gospel of Luke at Luke 6:20-23. Neither does Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
“There is no justification whatever for setting Luke’s version of the beatitudes over against Matthew’s. Matthew is not spiritualizing the beatitudes, and Luke giving them in their original form, nor is Luke giving a political twist to an original form of the beatitude which applied only to a poverty of disposition. Privation is not the ground of the beatitude in Luke, nor renunciation in Matthew. On the contrary, both gospels recognize that neither privation nor renunciation, spiritual or political, is justified except by the call and promise of Jesus, who alone makes blessed those whom he calls, and who is in his person the sole ground of their beatitude. Since the days of the Clementines, Catholic exegesis has applied this beatitude to the virtue of poverty, the paupertas voluntaria of the monks, or any kind of poverty undertaken voluntarily for the sake of Christ. But in both cases the error lies in looking for some kind of human behavior as the ground for the beatitude instead of the call and promise of Jesus alone.” Bonnoeffer, Dietrich, The Cost of Discipleship, Second Ed. (c. 1959 by SCM Press Ltd) p. 119, n. 1.
As in Luke, Matthew sees in the difficult human circumstances he calls “blessed” marks of faithful discipleship lived out in the joyful expectation of the coming reign of God. It is important to understand here that the “kingdom of heaven” is not some otherworldly paradise. “On the one hand, God’s future will not negate his creation; what he has created and done in history will be brought by him to a significant goal. On the other hand, this will not be the result of human efforts and historical processes, but will be entirely God’s doing. It follows that both the Old Testament and the New Testament are deeply interested in what is taking shape on this earth: God is controlling history, and God will bring his Kingdom about in the events on this earth. Therefore our Gospel [of Matthew] closes with authority given to Jesus “in heaven and on earth.” Matthew 28:18. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 John Knox Press) pp. 90-91.
The beatitudes constituting our lesson for Sunday are a profoundly significant part of the Sermon on the Mount as Professor Stanley Hauerwas points out: “The sermon, therefore, is not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus. To be saved is to be so gathered. That is why the Beatitudes are the interpretive key to the whole sermon-precisely because they are not recommendations. No one is asked to go out and try to be poor in spirit or to mourn or to be meek. Rather, Jesus is indicating that given the reality of the kingdom we should not be surprised to find among those who follow him those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek. Moreover, Jesus does not suggest that everyone who follows him will possess all the Beatitudes, but we can be sure that some will be poor, some will mourn and some will be meek.” Hauerwas, Stanely, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (c. 2006 by Stanley Hauerwas) p. 61. In short, the beatitudes are not virtues to be acquired, but the expected consequence of living as subjects in the kingdom of heaven as will be spelled out in the balance of the Sermon.
In many respects the Sermon on the Mount expresses in teaching form the meaning of “love” that is so beautifully expressed in St. Paul’s hymn at I Corinthians 13. In both the Sermon and Paul’s hymn, the cross stands at the center. This is because the cross is the form the kingdom of heaven invariably takes in a world that is in rebellion against its Creator. But as Paul reminds us, this seemingly weak and impotent expression of love in the cross is stronger than all the world’s violent hatred.