Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost, November 12, 2017
Micah 3:5-12, Psalm 43, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, Matthew 23:1-12
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the ancient world, they had a very transactional view of God. By which I mean, most cultures in the Ancient Near East, the cultures around the Holy Land, kind of thought of their gods as vending machines in the sky. If you prayed the right prayers, sang the right songs, conducted the right rituals and festivals, and offered the right sacrifices, your god would be happy and would send you rain for your crops and protection from your enemies. Perform the right rituals and you would be rewarded. But if you neglected those rituals, your god would be angry, your crops would fail, your herds would die, and your enemies would triumph over you. This should be fairly familiar to us, because lots of people in the modern world think of God as a vending machine in the sky, too. Lots of Christians think that if you pray the right prayers, go to church often enough, and believe the right things, that God will reward you with material prosperity: wealth, health, whatever they want.
The problem with this idea is that God is not a transactional god, but a relational one. That is, God does not base his actions on a kind of you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours tit-for-tat sort of calculation, but rather on relationships. God’s focus is not on measuring whether any one person is worthy of help or punishment, but on building relationships with all of God’s people. God’s focus is on love, on grace, on helping us grow to be the good, generous, loving people God created us to be.
And not just individual relationships, either. Modern society is very individualistic, which leads to a sort of “me and Jesus” focus where it’s all about your personal relationship with your Lord and Savior. But when you look at God’s Word in the Bible, God is just as concerned with community relationships. Community relationships as in God’s relationship with the whole community, yes, but also as in how people from different parts of the community treat one another. Which, if you take the image of God as our Father seriously, makes perfect sense. After all, think about it: doesn’t a loving and good parent care about how their children treat one another? If a parent has several children, and one of them is bullying another, a good and loving parent will not be happy with the bully. If one child is cheating another, a good and loving parent is going to be upset. If one child is going hungry and another has more than enough but doesn’t share, a good and loving parent is going to have a serious problem with the child who doesn’t share. Well, God is our good and loving parent, and God is the good and loving parent of each and every human being on the planet. Even those who are not Christian were created by God in God’s own image.
You can see this concern for human relationships in many places in the Bible. It’s in the way Jesus spent so much time with the poor, sick, outcasts, sinners, people society had rejected. It’s in the way the laws of the Old Testament consistently focus on making sure that the people on the fringes of society didn’t get left behind or shut out. The laws of God spend a lot of time specifying that every good thing applies not only to the VIPs but also to the widows, the orphans, the foreigners, the poor. The Biblical laws also outline quite a lot of protections for those people, so that society can’t trample over them without noticing. And you know how sometimes when someone’s been knocked off their feet financially, it’s so hard to get your life back together? The Biblical laws have provisions to help with that, too. The Biblical laws spend more time specifying protections and rights for people on the margins than they do on anything else. You cannot follow the spirit of God’s laws if you focus on ritual and ignore the plight of poor people, foreigners, widows and orphans, and anyone else who suffers. You just can’t.
Unfortunately, human beings are really good at self-justification, and by the 8th Century BC, the time of the prophet Micah and many of the other prophets, all of this had gotten lost. Because it’s easier to pray the right prayers than it is to care about the wellbeing of those who are different from you. And it’s cheaper to offer the right sacrifices in worship than it is to make sure that all of God’s people receive fair treatment by the law and by those with more wealth and power than them. And it’s certainly simpler to think of God as a vending machine in the sky than it is to take seriously what a relationship with him and all his people means. So they changed society to favor the rich and powerful, the ones who they thought “deserved” better treatment because after all, if you can tell how much God loves someone by how rich they are, then obviously God must not care about poor people.
So, there they were. With a society that followed some of the letter of God’s law, but completely ignored it’s spirit, and a religious community that was zealous in making sure that every worship service was done extravagantly well, but ignored pretty much everything else God ever said. And every year the poor got poorer, and life got harder for ordinary people because the laws and customs that were supposed to protect and support them were ignored and changed. And the people in charge of everything—religious leaders and social leaders both—thought things were going great. They thought they had a wonderful connection with God! They thought that the way they treated the most vulnerable people in their society didn’t matter.
God had a much, much different perspective. God thought things were going horribly. God was like a parent who sees one of their children hurting another of their children and then expecting that their parent won’t care. That’s why God sent a bunch of prophets—Micah, Amos, Isaiah, and Hosea—to try and change the hearts and minds of the people so that they would go back to the fair and good ways God intended for them. And that’s where our first lesson for today comes in. First, God condemns the religious leaders who say things are awesome because they’re comfortable, but attack and hurt people who are struggling to survive. “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 those who put nothing into their mouths.” They’re all going to be disgraced. They are all going to be publicly humiliated, and everyone is going to know that they’re hypocrites who are perverting God’s Word.
Then God turns the prophet Micah’s attention to the rest of society, and specifically to the leaders who keep changing the laws to tilt the playing field ever more in their own favor. Because they are creating a society in which more and more people suffer, they are guilty of creating all that suffering. When people starve to death, it’s their fault. The blood of all those who died because of poverty and injustice are on their hands, and God is keeping track. “9Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, 10who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong! … 12Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins.” They have hurt other members of God’s family; they have consistently and repeatedly caused others to suffer and be trampled on for their own selfish gain. And they’re going to pay for it. God is not going to protect them from their enemies. God is not going to be placated by offerings and sacrifices and prayers and any of the other things they offer God, because on a fundamental level what God wants most are good and life-giving relationships not just between God and humanity, but between God’s children. And you cannot build a good relationship with people if you’re cheating them, abusing them, causing them to suffer, or even just ignoring their suffering. You just can’t.
We keep forgetting this, though. We keep thinking of God as a vending machine in the sky, who will give us what we want if we just pray the right prayers, believe the right things, or worship in a ‘spiritual’ enough way, or read our Bibles enough. But if we believe, study, pray, and worship the right way and ignore the suffering of others, we’re hypocrites. If we do all the religious stuff right but don’t work for a society that treats even the lowliest people fairly and well, we’re fulfilling the letter of the law but not the spirit of it. And if we work on our personal relationship with God but neglect our relationships with the rest of God’s people, we’re missing half of what God calls us to be and do. May we seek to be all that God created us to be, and work for a society where all God’s people receive the justice and mercy they need to flourish and grow.