Religion and the Prophetic Critique

by Fr. Blake

A sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Trinity, 2 November 2014.

This sermon was preached at the 8am Low Mass at S. Stephen’s Church.  (We kept the Sunday after All Saints at the 10am, but the propers of the Sunday at 8am.)  It was fitting that these were the readings appointed for the Sunday before Election Day – though no part of this sermon is intended as a direct commentary on any particular race or campaign!

Collect: Almighty and merciful God, of whose only gift it cometh that thy faithful people do unto thee true and laudable service: Grant, we beseech thee, that we may run without stumbling to obtain thy heavenly promises; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Every once in a while, the lectionary presents us with Sunday readings which might be characterized as having a skeptical view of political and religious institutions.  In truth, there would be more Sundays like this if the lectionary included more readings from the minor prophets, like today’s from Micah.  Throughout Holy Scripture, and especially in the prophets, there runs an iconoclastic strain critiquing the authorities of the day.  Reforming theologians and revolutionary politicians have taken hold of this strain, and make battle cries of its chief passages in their efforts to upset the status quo.

What are we to make of passages such as these?  Especially at a place like S. Stephen’s, where we invest great spiritual and material resources into maintaing Christian Tradition as we have received it?

First of all, the perspective of the prophet has to be taken into consideration.  Micah began as a prophet during the days of King Jotham, a good king.  He finished his days as a prophet during the reign of King Hezekiah, another good king.  Scripture lauds both of them for the integrity of their faith.  But their reigns were not universally positive. Scripture also notes that beither one of them tore down the high places across the countryside, where the people were making sacrifices to the minor deities of hill and forest.  This was fodder enough for Micah the prophet to rail against even good kings.  But in the middle of his prophetic career, Micah had a much worse king to deal with: Ahaz.

Ahaz did not merely tolerate his people’s idolatry in the high places, but joined them himself.  Worse than that, he sacrificed his own children by fire to the god Molech.  He provoked a fight with the kingdom of Damascus, and ended up losing a number of cities in the war that followed.  To save himself Ahaz went to the king of Assyria, Tiglath-Pileser III.  Assyria, gearing up for its own campaign of conquest, was only too happy to “help” Ahaz, and promptly conquered the kingdom of Damascus — from which vantage point he later launched campaigns against Samaria, and from which a later king of Assyria, Sargon II, would totally destroy Israel.  In exchange for its assistance, Assyria demanded a vast payment of treasure, which led Ahaz to despoil the Temple and send off its gold and bronze to Assyria.  Late in Ahaz’ reign, the King of Assyria himself visited Jerusalem, and as an act of courtly hospitality, Ahaz ordered a second altar to be installed in the temple for the gods of Assyria, and burnt sacrifices upon it.  He gave over part of the temple precincts to house the royal entourage.

Micah had a lot to be angry about.  But it wasn’t the institution of religion as such.  It was the betrayal perpetrated by those in authority against the sacred duties which were their charge.  They not only allowed the people to persist in idolatry, they committed it themselves; and not only this, they impoverished the nation with pointless conflicts and costly treaties.  They were Israelites, and their rhetoric was that of the patriarchs and the prophets.  But their actions were self-serving, self-deluded, and wicked.  Micah declares that the solution of God would be to destroy Jerusalem, and the lying prophets which contributed to its decadence.

This is the perspective of Micah the prophet.  He was not condemning priesthood or prophecy as such, but the wrong use of these offices toward selfish ends.  His words should be interpreted not as a call for the destruction of religious institutions, but a defense of their value as originally conceived, and a call to purify them for future generations.

Second of all, it’s important to remember how Micah’s prophecy ultimately bears fruit.  Shortly after Micah’s death, Sennacherib king of Assyria destroyed what was left of Samaria and the northern kingdom of Israel, and made incursions deep into Judah, laying siege even to Jerusalem.  Several generations later, Nebuchadnezzar king of Bablyon destroyed Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah, razing the temple and taking the people into exile.  But even in exile, God was still with his people.  Their faith was tested, but their religion continued.  When they finally returned to Judah, they rebuilt the temple, and the line of the prophets was restored.

In the Gospel today we hear similar words of critique from Our Lord.  He warned his disciples against the pharisees and the sadducees.  He highlights the same issues from Micah’s day: their rhetoric is that of the patriarchs and the prophets, but their hearts are not true.  The Sadducees, colluding with the Romans, meant to enrich themselves at the cost of creating a permanent peasant class.  The Pharisees, ostensibly advocates of the people, nevertheless tied them in knots with hyper-sensitivity to every aspect of the Law, and many lesser ordinances which had accreted to it over the centuries.

From Our Lord’s perspective, religion was not a bad institution as such.  But its authorities had betrayed the charge God had given them.  His critique, together with Micah’s, suggests that true religion, far from being a heavy burden, is actually the means of liberation, equality, and justice for all people.

How did His critique ultimately bear fruit?  We know the story: he gave himself as the perfect Lamb of God, and fulfilled the old Law with all its demands.  His own sacrifice is the great sacrifice in which all true worship now consists; his own life the life which we all share; his own heart the source of the Love which is a greater defense than any military alliance could ever achieve.

Let us work to align our hearts with his, that we may speak not merely Christian-sounding rhetoric, but words of real freedom and release.  Let us always keep the feast of his victory, and worship him on earth, that we may at last enter his kingdom in heaven.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.