God is going to give you a smack down. That is a hard message to receive, especially when you believe God is your ticket to indefinite security. For the rulers of eight century Israel such over confidence in God’s divine favor and protection disallowed their ability to hear this message from the prophet Micah. The reasons given in our lectionary reading for God’s displeasure with his chosen people were Israel and Judah’s failure to care for the poor, their profiting off the unfair work of others, and their perversion of justice with bribes. The Israelites received warnings of God’s anger, but listened instead to the plethora of false prophets who spoon fed the people words of comfort, and denied that any change was needed. The true and challenging word of God was drowned out by a chorus of self-serving cheap-talk and all the while the nations of Judah and Israel marched blindly and steadily along a path of destruction.
Psalm 42 and 43 share a common refrain: Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God (Psalm 42:3; 42:11; 43:5). The refrain is introspective. The Psalmist is not in a good spot. Things have gone terribly wrong. The psalmist is separated from the house of worship, and walks about mournfully due to the oppression of an enemy. The psalmist desires to worship once again at the altar of the Lord, and is fighting against despair. The psalmist is singing to fight against a circumstance that threatens to take away the song in the psalmist’s heart. The introspective refrain is a defiant chorus born from the psalmist’s resistance—Hope in God!
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13
If we mirror read 1 Thessalonians (reverse engineer the occasion for Paul’s writing to Thessalonica) we infer that Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy were accused of trying to take advantage of the Thessalonians through their clever teaching, and their charisma. To be fair to the accusers, there were plenty of silver tongued, itinerant, hucksters moving from city to city and fleecing the gullible of their hard earned denarii. Could Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy’s gospel message be one more trick to swindle the unsuspecting population?
Paul invites his hearers to remember that while Paul and company proclaimed the gospel they also labored in secular work (presumably as tent makers) to not burden the new believers. In addition Paul recalls how the three missionaries treated each convert to the faith as their own child.
Because of the missionary’s exceptional conduct the Thessalonians were able to receive the Word not as a ‘human word’ but as ‘God’s word.’ The missionaries were not hucksters (sellers of small, worthless trinkets) but proclaimers of a life giving message. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians reminds us that missionary practices matter! The word of God is not by ‘hook or by crook.’ The gospel is robbed of its power when it is unethically imposed on its hearers.
Warning: do not construe this gospel lesson as a Christian vs. Jew diatribe. Jesus was a Jew, and his harsh criticisms on the attitudes and actions of some of Jewish contemporaries is not a denunciation of the Jewish faith. The reproofs in Matthew 23:1-12 are the result of an internal audit, an intramural squabble. Even if we see in Jesus’ words the concerns of Matthew’s community, we remember that Christianity was early seen (and experienced) as another sect within Judaism. Further, the attitudes and actions that Jesus decries are not a product of Judaism, and are as rampant now in Christian circles as they were in Jewish circles of the first century. As Sharon Ringe reminds us, “We have become the targets of what began as our own community’s rhetoric.”
And what were the attitudes and actions that Jesus found offensive? The first was duplicity. Many Pharisees talked a better game than they played. The second was religious oppression. Many Pharisees demanded a religious life too burdensome for many (especially the marginalized) to manage. The third was an insatiable appetite for prestige and honor. Many Pharisees were religious exhibitionists, and sought places and titles of honor instead of seeking an egalitarian kingdom of God.
Jesus counters the value system of hierarchical prestige and honor by asserting that the ‘greatest’ among humans is the one who ‘serves’, and that humility before God will lead to exultation, and that hubris before God will lead to humiliation.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider the importance of hearing the true and challenging word of God even when it is countered by a chorus of self-serving cheap-talk. In our worship the word is read and the word is proclaimed. In hearing the word there is both grace and judgment. In Thessalonica the word was received as God’s word because Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy’s personal ethics did not cloud the message. Jesus, in the tradition of Micah, criticized those who purported to be the mouth pieces of God yet were duplicitous, oppressive, and self serving. Our proclamation of the word will likewise suffer if we talk a better game than we play. Regardless God’s word will continue to challenge, and continue to be true, and in the kingdom of God will silence all competing voices.