The two readings for today’s sermon are Micah 3:5-12 and Matthew 23:1-12.
The theme for today is authenticity. I recently had a phone call from a friend who was so happy to tell me the fruits of his metal-detecting. He had discovered a beautiful coin, which when polished glittered like gold. He told me it must be valuable because the coin's date was 48 BC. He was crestfallen when I mentioned it must be a forgery. 'How can you say that?' he cried. 'You haven't even seen it!' I said, 'BC stands for Before Christ. How could the coin have been minted 48 years before an event had happened?'
Let me first concentrate on the book of Micah.
5 This is what the Lord says:
“As for the prophets
who lead my people astray,
they proclaim ‘peace’
if they have something to eat,
but prepare to wage war against anyone
who refuses to feed them.
6 Therefore night will come over you, without visions,
and darkness, without divination.
The sun will set for the prophets,
and the day will go dark for them.
7 The seers will be ashamed
and the diviners disgraced.
They will all cover their faces
because there is no answer from God.”
8 But as for me, I am filled with power,
with the Spirit of the Lord,
and with justice and might,
to declare to Jacob his transgression,
to Israel his sin.
9 Hear this, you leaders of Jacob,
you rulers of Israel,
who despise justice
and distort all that is right;
10 who build Zion with bloodshed,
and Jerusalem with wickedness.
11 Her leaders judge for a bribe,
her priests teach for a price,
and her prophets tell fortunes for money.
Yet they look for the Lord’s support and say,
“Is not the Lord among us?
No disaster will come upon us.”
12 Therefore because of you,
Zion will be ploughed like a field,
Jerusalem will become a heap of rubble,
the temple hill a mound overgrown with thickets.
Micah was an 8th century BC prophet, writing between 742-687 BC, making him a contemporary of Isaiah and Hosea. I enjoy the book of Micah, particularly his succinct formula for life. "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8) Micah, in the text, condemns the other prophets, highlighting that what comes out of their mouths is dependant on what you pay them. There was collusion between the prophets and the heads of Israel. They hid the truth and supported ways that were contrary to the will of God. This is not uncommon today. Many studies present in such a way that the results will support what the sponsor wishes them to say.
Micah was very concerned that the ways of Israel were contrary to God’s will. The prophet Hosea says God desires "mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6)
Similarly, the Prophet Amos, when writing to the Northern Kingdom between 760-750 BC, before Micah was born, said God hated Israel’s religious feasts. God would have no regard for Israel's offerings, and God would no longer listen to the songs or music. God preferred that justice should roll like a river and righteousness like a never-failing stream. (Amos 5:21-24 paraphrased)
In the text, Micah prophesies that Jerusalem will fall, which indeed it did to the Babylonians in 597 BC. Micah, Amos and Hosea are the background texts to the reading in Matthew.
1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.
5 “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.
8 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.
The first thing to note is that Jesus is an unauthorised teacher. He certainly had not gone through the training that rabbis needed. For me to be a minister, I had to go through three years of training alongside three years of following trained ministers, passing exams up to degree level and interviews. Only after I had satisfied the requirements of the ministerial procedure, could I be ordained. Jesus came on to the scene without the formal training. Indeed, when he did speak in synagogues, he was thrown out. (Matthew 13:53-58)
The surprise of the Gospel is Jesus does not condemn the teaching of the Pharisees. There are six thousand Pharisees in the time of Jesus, and they were students of the law, experts giving counselling so that the people of Israel could live a life resulting in heaven. They were well respected, and Jesus acknowledged their importance by telling people they must do what the Pharisees instruct.
The complaint Jesus had with the Pharisees was what they did not practice what they taught. Jesus listed a whole list of things where the Pharisees were falling short. Alongside not practising what they preached, the Pharisees were unwilling to do what they demanded of others; the Pharisees loved to show off, they revelled in their titles and having the recognition of others. In short, they misunderstood their calling.
Jesus did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfil it. By fulfilling, he had the bigger picture of God’s world in mind. Instead of the minutiae, Jesus took the Law and transposed it from being a burden to being a help. Matthew 12:1, when they caught Jesus picking grain on the sabbath, is an example of the humanity of God coming first and the Law second.
God’s Law is a gift to help us live in relationship to God and one another. It is this bigger picture that Jesus brings in his ministry, using the law to show Gods compassion and tolerance. Jesus brings no new ideas, he uses the tenets of the Old Testament all the time, but what he does do is refresh them and uses them in the context of the day.
Jesus also promoted the idea of servanthood. As a servant, you mould yourself around your master. In this way, his disciples were to live, moulding their lives around God via his son Jesus, using their teachings and powers to bring healing and wisdom wherever they went. Jesus was often in conflict with the chief priests, the scribes, the elders, the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees, so following Christ was no easy discipleship. But their words needed to equal their actions, and this is the gift that Jesus’ ministry brings.
The Pharisees were literate, whereas the vast majority of the population were illiterate. The people of Israel needed leadership, and it was Jesus showed them how to live, restoring their relationship with God. So today, as followers of Christ, we must mould ourselves around the teachings of Jesus. That is our calling. We are free to accept or refuse. By accepting, our lives will change as our purpose, our values and our beliefs realign to that of God, our loving and gracious creator.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon