SJF • Proper 26a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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....
We heard a reading this morning from the book of the prophet Micah. He is one of the “Minor Prophets” — one of the twelve whose much shorter works are gathered together at the end of the Old Testament after the big-league heavy-hitters Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel — each of whose works alone is longer than the twelve others put together. But they are none the less important.
Micah is one of these Twelve Minor Prophets, but in today’s reading he also appears to be in the minority among the other prophets of his own time — the ones whom he accuses of leading the people astray. These are the prophets for hire, who cry out “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing in their mouths.
This stand-off among the prophets is not all that unusual — oftentimes in Israel’s history there was disagreement among those called prophets: some said one thing and some another, and it was often the case that the one telling the truth — the true prophet — was in the minority.
You may recall the story of Elijah at Mount Carmel, when he alone faced off against several hundred prophets of the false god Baal — ridiculing them as they danced about and cut and gashed themselves in an effort to induce their god to show himself. Or you might recall that Amos (another of the Twelve Minor Prophets) prophesied in the minority and was chided for doing so. At that he protested that he wasn’t even a prophet — just a shepherd who lived off the fruit of the land— until God called him to speak the truth to the people of that land.
Another early prophet, Micaiah — not to be confused with Micah — like Elijah also had to bring bad news of defeat to Ahab king of Israel, noting that God had sent a lying spirit into the mouths of four hundred other prophets who told Ahab that he would be successful. Talk about a minority of one! — and yet he was the only one who told the truth.
The sad fact is that there were often false prophets, like those against whom Micah protests in our reading this morning: prophets at a price, prophets who thought in terms of personal profit — with an “F I” instead of “P H E” — and who would give you what you wanted to hear, for a price — like the fortune-tellers who will always give good news so long as you cross their palms with silver.
For those against whom Micah speaks, it is all about the money: not just the prophets, but the rulers who take bribes to hand out the desired judgment; priests who teach falsely for a price, or prophets who give pleasing oracles of peace in exchange for silver or gold. Micah stands in opposition to all of this. Although the prophets and princes and priests can be bought, God will not be bought off, and will bring his truth, will bring his rule, and his judgment upon all who turn aside to evil ways. As Micah says in another passage from his writing: you cannot buy God off with sacrifices and burnt offerings — even going so far as to imagine that God would accept your own children in a human sacrifice. No, Micah says: what the Lord God requires of you — in that ringing phrase — “is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
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The situation is not all that different by the time of Christ. The authorities — in this case the scribes and the Pharisees — enjoy the privilege of their station. They sit in the seat of Moses — giving authoritative interpretations of the Law — but they fail to follow through on the Law’s harder teachings about justice, fairness and equity. The return they garner in exchange is not so plainly financial, but rather the literal “fringe benefits” — like those fringes that decorate their prayer shawls in an ostentatious show of self-righteous piety. They have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at the banquets, and the respectful bows and curtsies in the street and the marketplace, as people nod to them and humble themselves and call them “rabbi.”
Jesus, like Micah before him, stands as a minority of one against this comfortable establishment. He knows — as indeed only the Word of God can know, as the one who sent the prophets in the first place — he knows that a prophet’s task is not to cozy up to power and prestige, but as Finley Peter Dunne once famously put it, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Those in the seats of power would later accuse the Christians of trying to turn the world upside-down. And indeed that is what they did, and what they were meant to do. A world in which even one child goes hungry or perishes from a treatable disease is a world that needs to be turned upside-down.
Our Gospel passage this morning closes with Jesus almost quoting his mother, Blessed Mary of Nazareth, who had herself spoken prophetically when she visited her cousin Elizabeth and said, “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.” This is what happens when the minority has God on its side — when the truth that they proclaim is not something they speak for what they can get out of it, or to please others or to gain their support from it, or to exalt themselves — but simply because it is the truth.
Telling the truth will often not win you friends or earn you praise or reward. It can get you into trouble, as it did Elijah and Amos and Micaiah and Micah... and Jesus — and as it did for the Apostles who spread the word of Jesus and his teaching, and turned the world upside-down, so that the rich and comfortable might slip from their seats — whether the seat of Moses or the prince’s throne — and come to learn what it is to be among the poor and disenfranchised of this world.
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Jesus ends his words in this morning’s Gospel with a warning to his followers. They are not to purchase honor with flattery, to take upon themselves high titles and the best seats in the places of earthly pomp and circumstance. No, they are to turn their hearts and minds — and ears — to the one in heaven, who is their Father, and to Jesus Christ who is their teacher and instructor.
We are called to be like the true prophets of old, who listened for the word of God — both for the unfolding of the written word of God, and for the teaching of the living Word of God in our hearts. The ancient prophets saw his day, far off and as in a vision, and were glad. We are fortunate enough to live in the days since his coming, and what is more, to continue to welcome him among us in Word and Sacrament. No better seat of honor, or more prestigious banquet exists than the one to which we have been invited and at which we are nowseated — not because of our worthiness, but by his grace. To him be the glory, now and for ever.