5Thus 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.
6Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; 7the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God. 8But 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.
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! 11Its rulers give judgement for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the LORD and say, "Surely the LORD is with us! No harm shall come upon us."
12Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountains of the house a wooded height.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
1Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; 3therefore do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4They tie up heavy burdens; hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to movie them. 5They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for their make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues. 7and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9And call no one father on earth, for you have one Father-the one in heaven. 10Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11The greatest among you will be your servant. 12All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.Leah's favorite novel when she was in high school was George Orwell's 1984. It tells the story of one couple's attempt to escape a culture that monitors and controls every action and thought of its people, and its author gives us a powerful observation that describes every human culture and group I've encountered: "If you kept the small rules, you could break the big ones.”
I don’t think any of us would have to try very hard to find an example of Orwell’s observation: someone uses a loophole in the rules to gain an advantage in a game, another person uses a procedural technicality to get their way in a vote, someone else masks their contempt thinly through perfect etiquette. It’s not a great way to make friends, but it seems to get people ahead, at least in the short term.
This is not a new phenomenon. We have been breaking big rules and keeping small ones as long as we have had rules. Micah unmasks this hypocrisy in the professional prophets and priests of his day, those who spoke words that comforted the ones who signed their paychecks, and condemned those who did not contribute to their salaries. “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.” By providing excellent customer service to their employer, they are keeping the small rules. By ignoring God’s call to righteousness and love, they are breaking the big ones.
Yet having food and a room over our heads, warm clothes and strong wall, or even a bell tower a well-furnished worship space are not crimes. “[Micah] perceptively indicts the tendency of elites of various types to form a self-confirming, self-enriching power structure.” For Micah, the big broken rules is that these leaders, both religious and civil, and seeking their own comfort. “Follow the money, Micah says, and sooner or later you will find yourself standing in front of some well-fed leader telling satisfied customers, 'Surely the LORD is with us.’" The have exchanged the living God for a self-congratulatory fairy tale.
Ultimately these teachers, priests, prophets, and leaders have turned from truth to comfort because they are afraid of losing a room over our heads, warm clothes and strong wall, or even a bell tower a well-furnished worship space. They have become so accustomed to sitting in privilege that they are afraid of losing their place at the table. We all face that temptation, and can fall into it just by not paying attention. “It is so easy to confuse our interests with God’s purposes, our power with God’s sovereignty, our standing with God’s glory.” We lose sight that God is the focus, not our own edification. It is so tempting to use the assurance of God’s grace to avoid looking at the difficult issues. We see our Micah text all over the place, but we struggle to see ourselves in it. We don’t want to face our complicity in justice issues. “Yet they lean upon the LORD and say, ‘Surely the LORD is with us! No harm shall come upon us.’” We’d rather just pretend they weren’t there.
I was on a mission trip, it was my first year at the Tri-Cities Workcamp where I went last summer, where I'll take our high schoolers next summer. We went into an inner-city home where the homeowner could not afford to make repairs, and one of our tasks was to take down some wallpaper and paint the walls. We went at the wallpaper, which had been haphazardly thrown up a few years previously, and began removing it.
I wish I could say that we uncovered beautiful wood paneling, and that once we scraped the surface we found a blessing beyond what we could imagine. I wish I could say that when the homeowner saw what was just beneath that ugly wallpaper, she saw that her home, and she herself, had value beyond what was easily visible. I wish I could say that what we uncovered inspired the whole neighborhood and many repented and were baptized, but not all stories have that kind of twist.
Underneath that haphazardly put up wallpaper was ordinary sheetrock. The only thing special about the walls in that room were the half dozen holes we found just underneath the wallpaper. The largest one was eighteen inches across.
In her haste to make that room look good, she had papered over the damage until she forgot about it. Or maybe she was afraid to tell us about it in her shame over knowing what was underneath. Holes do not repair themselves. Neither do injustices right themselves. We cannot pretend that all is well just so we look good in front of others.
The problem is not in saying "all is well." The problem is when we forget that sometimes, all is not well. The problem is when we profess the faith of the comfortable when so many of us do not have that comfort, and we use empty pronouncements to cover up their suffering, or our own. "Surely the LORD is with us! No harm shall come upon us." We use empty words as an excuse to hold on to what we can grab for ourselves, rather than faithfully living God’s justice.
In our Matthew passage, Jesus gives us a picture of what a world full of God’s justice looks like. “And call no one father on earth, for you have one Father-the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
We are tempted to use empty words to salt ourselves, lying to ourselves about our comfort, so we don’t have to give up what small rules we have kept, and the supposed benefits that accompany them. Yet those fringe benefits are not true blessings, and those comforts will fade and prove false. They may look good, but unless our focus is on God, we will stumble over them.
God is our truth and comfort. We may stumble across many blessings in pursuit of that truth, but our comfort is that each person is given the fullness of God’s grace, because we all desperately need it. “Equality before God insists not only that the proud humble themselves but that the marginalized take their place among God’s children.” As Christians, we have the freedom to hunger and thirst for righteousness, and the responsibility to do justice. To tell those who suffer injustice that “All is well” is as nonsensical as saying that two and two make five.
The leaders, priests, and prophets of Micah have been preaching nonsense. Their prophetic words promised hope and comfort, but only delivered profits for their own comfort. Micah's world is troubled, but these prophets, priests, and leaders have said time and time again that all is well. They have traded the truth for comfort, and have focused on looking good, rather than being good. They have papered over the holes in their lives and bragged about how strong their house was. They use God’s grace to shield their eyes from the injustice of their culture.
So God removes the shield, tears down the wallpaper, and exposes the hypocritical holes. “Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God.” Those who use their connection with God as insulation from their own sinfulness will find themselves suddenly in the cold, forced to examine what’s really going on in the world.
But that’s the only way to heal. We must confront our brokenness, and the way that we fit into the brokenness of this world. The wounds must breathe, because they cannot heal if they are covered up. The wallpaper must be torn down so that the holes can be repaired and the house restored. We must give up the self-congratulatory fairy tale that our lives are perfect and that we somehow are deserving of the comforts and honors that are in fact underserved gifts.
The Pharisees were obvious examples of this arrogance. Jesus describes to us how “They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for their make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues.” They want to look good, preserving their position rather than serving God. The prophets, priests, and leaders of Micah’s time would be proud. Yet we may also stand shoulder to shoulder with them. “Whenever Christians, especially those in positions of leadership, begin to develop a hierarchal, “reserved parking space” mentality, lording their alleged rank over others in the church…then then have like the scribes and Pharisees of old presumed for themselves the honor that belongs to God alone.”
We will all fall into the traps that ensnared the prophets, priests, leaders, scribes and Pharisees. We will all spend time as hypocrites. But there is still good news.“The antidote for hypocrisy is grace…Matthew’s God forgives infinitely. His Jesus will forgive Peter’s denials and the disciples cowardice…This Jesus keeps loving and loving, despite failings and blemishes.” One of the lunch bunch crowd pointed out that these passages remind us that we’re not there yet. God’s not through with us yet.
We have the assurance of God’s Grace and Presence. It is tempting to use it to shield us from our fears. Instead, let us take it as motivation to respond in faith, serving God and neighbor instead of only ourselves. It may be tempting to think we can only keep the small rules and break the big ones, but we know that our true comfort is not based on rules or advantages, it’s based on the love of God, a free gift beyond our imagination. Let’s not hide from it, let’s go into the world and live our faith, assured that even if we fail, if some harm does come to us, we are still God’s beloved children. We cannot hide from the injustice of the world, and perhaps we cannot prevail against them.
But God does establish justice without end, and we can live in faith that God is our truth and our comfort.
And thanks be to God for that.