Listen to the Prophets, Or Else

Wednesday, April 4, 2012 — Wednesday in Holy Week

Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p. 957)

Psalms (morning) 55 // 74 (evening)

Lamentations 2:1-9

2 Corinthians 1:23 – 2:11

Mark 12:1-11

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At some point in Israel’s early history, it became an article of faith, articulated in scripture, that God had chosen Jerusalem as the divine dwelling place, and that God would always protect and defend Jerusalem from its enemies. Lamentations looks that failed expectation in the face and declares in the wake of Jerusalem’s destruction — it was God who did it. It was not just enemies, but God’s own act that destroyed the city, its temple, and the entire nation. “The Lord has become like an enemy; he has destroyed Israel.” (2:5a)

We should have listened to the prophets, the poet tells a grieving nation. The prophets warned the nation that they were provoking God’s anger by their unfaithfulness and injustice, especially by the nation’s failure to act with compassion and generosity toward the poor, the weak, the vulnerable and the stranger — the widow, the orphan and the alien. The prophets spoke in God’s name to declare there are terrible consequences to unjust behavior. Lamentations looks back at those consequences and says that we provoked God by our injustice, and God destroyed us. (Much later in the Lamentations the poet will speak comforting words, but not yet.)

I think of the American belief that we are a chosen nation, a city set on a hill, a blessing to all the other nations of the earth. There is deep within our character an optimism and confidence that we can and always will prevail. We are the good guys, and in the end, the good guys always win. But are we the good guys?

There are prophets speaking words of warning to America today, speaking of our greed and our inhospitable treatment toward the alien and the poor. Prophets tell us if we abuse the earth that the planet itself will have its revenge. We hear the same warnings today that ancient Israel heard from Amos, Isaiah, Micah, Hosea and Jeremiah. And yet, we still put our trust in our military might rather than in God and God’s justice. We let money and power direct our ways. Money and power becomes more concentrated in the hands of fewer people, while we make little provision for those who suffer. The U.S. House of Representatives just passed a budget that makes draconian cuts to some of the safety nets for the poor, while lowering taxes again for the wealthy. Is there any doubt what the prophets would say to us? A nation can live unjustly for only so long before catastrophe comes.

Today’s gospel story of the parable of the tenants makes the same point. The owner of the vineyard will allow the arrogant and abusive actions of the tenants to last only so long. “What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.” (Mark 12:9)

The prophets and the gospel both tell us what to do — change our direction. Repent. Turn away from pride, greed, and power. Turn toward compassion, love, generosity and peacefulness.

The prophets declare the expectations of God: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” And they demand that “justice roll-down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” When the prophets speak the word “justice,” it is predominately an economic term. In most cases in the scripture, the word “righteousness” is a synonym for justice, also an economic term.

How we use our power and money is the prophets’ focus. Honor God rather than worshipping our own power. Serve the needs of the poor and vulnerable rather than the interests of the wealthy and strong. That’s the consistent message and warning of scripture. If we don’t, the prophets warn, destruction and lamentation will certainly follow.

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