The Recovery of the Person
Several weeks ago I preached on the text Micah 6:1-8. A number of you have continued the conversation we began in that sermon. So, I thought I would toss a few more things into the pot for us to stew on.
As I mentioned in the sermon, there’s a sort of fault line that runs through the middle of this text from the Prophet Micah. On one side lie the manic superstitions of cultic religion, the blood-drenched altars and frightened hapless sacrifices. On the other side of the fault there’s a living faith that transforms people.
The Prophet Micah is not wrapped in the grand robes of an esoteric cult. He does not prostrate himself amid the smoke of ritual fires. He stands before us in ordinary street clothes on an ordinary street. And he proclaims essentially the same message that Jesus of Nazareth will incarnate.
This is such an important reality. Already in the message of the prophets of Israel we find the shift from ritual sacrifices controlled by a caste of priests to what Rabbinical scholar Ellis Rivkin called “the hidden revolution” of the heart, a shift from the Jerusalem Temple with its cultic rites to the local synagogue where people hear scripture read and taught. In fact, reflecting on this shift, which is already well underway when Jesus comes on the scene, may help us make sense of Jesus’ “cleansing of the Temple.”*
Faith for Jesus (and this is true of the Jewish teachers with whom he shared so much) is not an external matter of ritual but a deeply personal matter of the heart. This faith is as revolutionary today as it was in the time of Jesus, and, before him, in the time of Micah.
The message is clear: God did not go to all the trouble of creation and redemption (and Christ certainly didn’t become incarnate, suffer and die on a cross) just to make us religious. God plays for much bigger stakes than religion. God wants to make us the human beings he created us to be.
There’s really nothing religious about it. But it is sacred. It is a genuinely holy process, a spiritual reality. That’s the amazing message from the Prophets. God wants to work within us to make us the human beings God created us to be, who tread the earth humbly beside him as his children, acting justly and loving mercy.
Micah’s book of prophecy might be called Isaiah in Miniature. Micah manages in just seven chapters to deliver the gist of Isaiah’s message that takes sixty-five chapters (and stretches over two or three lifetimes of different authors).
Isaiah, who himself was both a priest in the Temple and a prophet, begins his message by recounting a vision he has had while offering sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem. Isaiah ends his book with a chapter in which the just and merciful God of Israel recounts the deeds of a people who had long “walked in a way that was not good” while making their ritual sacrifices, burning their incense, and proclaiming to everyone around them that they were “holier than thou.”
Elie Wiesel, in an essay on the Prophet Isaiah, asks the question, “What is the essence of prophecy?” Wiesel observes that, in the mists of distant antiquity, prophets were content to be oracles, supposedly foretelling the future. We have records in the Bible of the early frenzied prophets who appeared on the scene long before our canonical prophets appeared. These ancient figures were more ecstatic shamans than preachers. For the canonical prophets, however, it is not frothing at the mouth and foretelling the future that predominate their messages, but forth-telling, i.e., proclamation. Their mission is theological and ethical: “Thus says the Lord” speaks to the heart and hands of a people of God, not to their fates told in runes.
As Wiesel goes on to say, however, according to the prophets of Israel, “…it is not hard to guess what the future holds for us; all we have to do is examine our present behavior. Let an individual or a group repent, and hope is permitted and even inevitable. Without repentance, we are doomed.”**
And what was it that was going on in Israel and Judah in the days when the prophets called them to repent and return to the Lord?
Well now, that’s where things get tricky, because many folks wouldn’t see much at all wrong with the society in which the prophets dwelt. Someone might even say their society worked pretty well, that, at most, it needed no more than a tweak here or there. But the prophets saw disaster on every hand. Why?
In Abraham Heschel’s wonderful study of the biblical prophets (the greatest study of the prophets ever written), Heschel describes the genius of the prophets as their ability to hold God and humanity simultaneously in their thoughts. The prophets were not idealists who yearned for an otherworldly utopia; they were representatives of the reign of God among God’s people here and now. They advocated an inner kingdom that would challenge and change the world around them.
To put it another way: while the ritual sacrifices of the Temple were intended to act on God to change God’s mind toward God’s people, the prophets believed that God wishes to act on us to change our minds and our actions. As Christians, we would extend this thought theologically to say that Christ did not suffer to change God’s attitude toward humanity (that is, to make a God of wrath act mercifully toward us), but to reveal God’s love for us and God’s intention to share his character with us.
The prophets looked at widows ignored and children neglected, the poor forgotten, strangers unwelcome, and they saw, not a social services problem, but a crisis of the human heart.
The prophets noticed how the courts were rigged to work only for the few, the privileged, but not for the powerless. And they saw, not so much a need for criminal justice reform, as a crisis of the soul.
To most of the leaders of their time, the prophets were making mountains out of molehills. But the prophets cried unto the heavens because they saw that the time had come to announce the way of the Lord as a living reality among them.
Many of the prophets didn’t want to be prophets. But they felt so deeply God’s grief over his people’s lack of compassion they were compelled to speak. They lived the grief of God, it poured from them as tears and sweat. God’s grief was carved indelibly on the soft muscles of their heart. They couldn’t stop noticing injustice once they saw it; they couldn’t stop feeling the weight of their own complicity once they understood it. They were called to speak when others remained silent.
Jesus was furthering the message of the prophets when he said that “God’s reign is within you,” and when he “cleansed the temple” in an act of sacred vandalism. He knew that the temple in which we need to turn over tables is not in Jerusalem, it’s the temple of our own hearts. He knew also that the final stage of prophecy is never condemnation, but the recovery of the person.***
*I encourage you to take a look at Walter Brueggemann’s early book, “The Prophetic Imagination” (1978), which has recently been published in a new edition. Despite the tremendous number and variety of excellent books Dr. Brueggemann has written since this book, not least his irreplaceable studies of the Psalms, I confess that this remains my favorite of all his books.
**Elie Wiesel, “Wise Men and Their Tales: Portraits of Biblical, Talmudic, and Hasidic Masters,” (2003), pp. 178-179.
*** And, yes, I shamelessly stole this phrase from Carlyle Marney’s book, “The Recovery of the Person: A Christian Humanism” (1978).