- Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25
We are now in the hands of an author/editor commonly known as the “Deuteronominist,” whom Robert Alter assumes to actually be the prophet Jeremiah assisted by his secretary, Baruch. (Who Wrote the Bible, p. 146 ff) This writer re-tells the whole history of God’s people from Abraham/Sarah up to the catastrophic sack of the Temple and enforced diaspora by the conquering Babylonians and concluding with the promise that the Temple would be rebuilt. The recurring pattern that continues through all eight books (Joshua, Judges, I II Samuel, I II Kings, I II Chronicles is– fidelity to God’s ways preserves God’s people; infidelity brings ruin. In today’s appointed excerpt Joshua leads “the elders, the heads, the judges and the officers of Israel” through a stern cross-examination: choose this day whom you will serve– the God who initiated and sustained a relationship of compassion and care or the gods your ancestors worshiped before Abraham and Sarah or the gods of Egypt or the gods of other neighboring nations. Three times Joshua drills them and three times the leaders pledge their fidelity to the Lord’s ways.
- Psalm 107: 1-7, 33-37
“Acclaim the Lord who is good, the psalmist begins. She then reminds God’s people that their originary identity is those who were “redeemed,” saved, rescued “from the hand of the foe.” She cites the years “wandering” in the “wilderness” and the ensuing thirst and fatigue. Out of their misery they “cried to the Lord” who “saved them.” It was the Lord who put them on a “straight road” that led them to a “settled town.” Continuing (v. 33), the psalmist invites all the people and the “elders” to “Exalt the Lord.” She then declares that the Lord is capable of extremes: the Lord can turn rivers running through the land into “wilderness” and the “fertile land into salt flats,” “because of the evil of those who dwell there.” But, the Lord can also turn “pools of water” into wilderness or parched land into springs of water. There the Lord “settles” the “hungry” and “founds a settled town.” There God’s people “sow fields and plant vineyards” and the Lord blesses them and they flourish.
- Micah 3: 5-12
After the trauma of the fall of the Northern Kingdom and its capital, Samaria, to the Assyrians, a prophet named Micah, like his contemporary Isaiah, challenges the leaders of the Southern Kingdom with its capital Jerusalem. He directly and openly ridicules these leaders who “cry Peace” when they have plenty to eat for themselves but “declare war” on those who have nothing to put in their mouths. In such a bleak, dark time, without “vision,” “the sun shall go down upon the prophets.” They will be silent because they cannot discern any “answer” from God. “But as for me,” Micah declares, “I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might” to declare to God’s people and their leaders “who abhor justice and pervert all equity,” who build with “blood” and with “wrong.” Those who are supposed to guarantee justice take “bribes” and the “priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money” but have the audacity to still presume “the Lord is with us.” This is the reason Jerusalem will be leveled and returned to “plowed” land strewn with the ruins of the city.
- Psalm 43
Expressing isolation and the “deceit” of his own people, the psalmist cries to God for “Your light and Your truth.” They will “guide” the psalmist and bring him back to “Your holy mountain/Your dwelling place.” There, at “God’s altar,” he will “acclaim” God, accompanied on a “lyre” and moaning for God in whom he has “hope.”
- I Thessalonians 2: 9-13
Having quickly left Thessaloniki, Paul writes a letter of encouragement and exhortation to the community of believers there from both Jewish and non-Jewish backgorunds. He reminds them of his “blameless” behavior while he was with them and describes his work as nurturing them like a parent. He then depicts his teaching as “the word of God… not as human word, but as what it really is, God’s word….” Now this “word” is “at work in you believers.”
- Matthew 23: 1-12
Only in Matthew’s narrative does Jesus call out “the scribes and Pharisees who sit on Moses’ seat…” in this particular confrontation. He tells the “crowds” to honor the knowledge and insight of the scribes and Pharisees and to “practice and observe whatever they teach you and follow it….” But just as succinctly and bluntly he also tells the people “do not do as they do for they do not practice what they teach.” They pile on the shoulders of the pious elaborate, heavy religious rules and dense interpretations–“burden”– but will not lift a finger to put their words into action. They enjoy wearing clerical garb “to be seen” and they crave “the place of honor,” including the “best seats” and enjoy the honorific titles in the streets. But “you”– this new community of believers inaugurated by Jesus– are not to use titles, such as rabbi, Father or master. Rather the person considered the “greatest” among you will be the “servant” in your community. Here the text repeats a saying from 20: 26-27: “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
People who consider themselves faithful frequently focus on the teachings, practices, doctrine, polity, and hierarchy of religion. Because these are the manageable aspects of religion and they bring their own rewards of institutional status and piety, they have an innate attraction. In the meantime, the hungry go hungry, those unfairly imprisoned sit in prison with no advocate, civic life corrodes, commerce favors the strongest over others, and public institutions fail to serve their communities honestly and reliably. While the scriptures extol the importance of sound teaching, responsible interpretation and worthy worship, they also insist that there is no substitue for action, specifically, how to make justice happen. Micah skewers the leaders for “perverting justice;” Jesus acknowledges that the religious leaders may get the words right, but do not follow-through with the actual deeds of justice; “they do not practice what they teach.”
Reflecting on a parallel occasion when Jesus expressed impatience for religious types who replace action with just words (Mark 4: 35ff), Catherine Keller in her intriguing book, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming, attributes “Jesus’ irritation” with those who equate faith mainly with “belief, with knowledge, with any stash of propositions.” They fail to “Bear the fruit, use the talent, heal the sick, feed the hungry, uncover the flame, make the peace.” She calls these types of action “the activating gospel.”
The “activating gospel” works on and in believers, converting them into accomplished, skilled justice-workers. They know the “words” of faith as well as anyone, and they turn the words into deeds. They practice what they preach and the difference is irrefutable.