Today in the Spirit: Proper 26A

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It is in these latter weeks of the season after Pentecost, prior to the pre-Advent presentation of our Lord’s teachings on the end times, that the church assigns the hardest teachings of Jesus on Christian living. Throughout these weeks in Year A, it has been a hard slog through teaching on the theme of hypocrisy, mostly in Jesus’s dialogue with religious leaders. Now, in the Book of Matthew, we come to the point at which the challenges of the religious leaders against Jesus have ended, the die has been cast for his execution, and our Lord will address the people one last time against the double-mindedness of the scribes and the Pharisees. The assigned Gospel reading for the week out of Matthew 23:1-12 is directed to the crowds and to his disciples, instructing them how to maneuver as believers in the Christ living under the thumb of those who do not believe.

The OT reading from Micah 3:5-12 is selected to demonstrate the force of divine opposition against false leaders much as the Gospel reading does. The worshiper hears the prophet declaring about himself, I am filled with the power of the Spirit of the LORD (8) and will think this could be Jesus talking in his own time. The appointed Psalm 43, with its refrain, Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? (carried over from Psalm 42), gives us words Jesus might himself use in prayer during the tumultuous days before his death. 

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For a New Testament reading, the church appoints 1 Thessalonians 2:9-20 to continue with the sequence of readings in that letter. Addressing himself, it would appear, mainly to the Jewish Christians in Thessalonica, Paul writes disparagingly of the unbelieving Jewish leaders, your own countrymen (14), who act out against the formation of the church. The language is similar to that of Jesus speaking to the crowds about the Pharisees and scribes. The appointed Collect fits with the tone of the readings, which encourage the people of God “not to be anxious about earthly things” and “to hold fast to those that shall endure.” 

The Collect

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, as we live among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

To Declare to Jacob His Transgression (Micah 3:5-12)

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
    and to Israel his sin.
Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob
    and rulers of the house of Israel,
who detest justice
    and make crooked all that is straight,
who build Zion with blood
    and Jerusalem with iniquity.
Its heads give judgment for a bribe;
    its priests teach for a price;
    its prophets practice divination for money;
yet they lean on the Lord and say,
    “Is not the Lord in the midst of us?
    No disaster shall come upon us.”
Therefore because of you
    Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
    and the mountain of the house a wooded height (9-12).

Our OT reading comes from a larger section of the Book of Micah (2:6-3:12) in which the prophet speaks a word from YHWH against the corrupt political and religious leaders of the nation of Judah, probably in the latter days of the reign of King Hezekiah (see Jeremiah 26:17-19). In contrast to the false prophets who will be now disgraced and receive no word from God, Micah declares about himself, But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD. This should cause us to recall similar prophetic language about Jesus, The Spirit of the Lord is upon me (Isaiah 61:1, Luke 4:18). In the Gospel reading, Jesus speaks against the religious leaders of his day just as Micah is doing, but with even greater authority.

In our devotion to Jesus, there must be no doubt that he is always active in standing against the efforts of bullies and dreamers, inside and outside the church, making a mockery of his Good News and leading people astray for personal gain. Be assured, our God is not only for the good but against the bad. About the cross of Christ, Paul proclaims: He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (Colossians 2:15). Wherever we are in the world, we must not despair over what appears to be the forces of evil winning the day. The monk Macarius of Egypt (d. 391 AD) wrote this about the disposition of Jesus to stand against sin both within our hearts and out in the world: Woe to the path that is not walked on, or along which the voices of men are not heard, for then it becomes the haunt of wild animals. Woe to the soul if the Lord does not walk within it to banish with his voice the spiritual beasts of sin.”

Today, in the Spirit, inspired by this word from Micah, I stand in confidence that the Son of God is set against the sin of the world around me, but also in fear of his determination to cleanse the sin in my heart.      

Vindicate Me O God (Psalm 43)

Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
against an ungodly people,
from the deceitful and unjust man
deliver me!
For you are the God in whom I take refuge;
why have you rejected me?
Why do I go about mourning
because of the oppression of the enemy?
Send out your light and your truth;
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling!
Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre,
O God, my God.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.

This song of lament appears to be a third verse of lyrics continuing from Psalm 42. This is the only time the church assigns Psalm 43 in the three-year cycle. The references to intense interaction between the psalmist and ungodly people make this psalm a good choice to go with the Gospel reading about Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees. Our Lord has a cause against an ungodly people, just like the psalmist. The Gospel narrative may give the appearance of Jesus passing calmly through his struggles with the religious leaders in these last days of his life, but there can be no doubt that he was anguished. We might imagine the words of this psalm on his lips at many points of his ministry.

Such words could be on our lips too when we find ourselves as Christians forced to stand up against injustice in the face of opposition. The initial plea Vindicate me (Heb shapatni, “defend me” or “declare me innocent”) is for when you know that we are right, God has confirmed it in your heart, but there is strong pushback from people on the other side. (If you’re not so sure you’re right, you might instead be asking for discernment as in another psalm, Search me, O God, and know my heart! (see Psalm 139:23-24). It is a difficult irony that God can sometimes be more silent to us than ever when we are facing opposition. Are you just now standing up against injustice, like this psalmist, like our Lord against the plotting Pharisees? Let the psalmist be your guide: 1) Cry out to God in your mourning (2); 2) pray for the revelation of his light and truth in the situation (3); and 3) renew your hope in God (5).

Today, Holy Spirit, empower me as you do the psalmist to trust in you, especially when I am standing up for the truth and feel alone doing so.

Is It Not You? (1 Thessalonians 2:9-20)

But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy (17-20).

Nowhere in his letters does Paul express his affection for brothers and sisters in the Lord more passionately than this. Strikingly, he sees in his mind’s eyes, standing in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at his coming (NASB), this group of saints. It is hard to know if he imagines himself presenting the church to Jesus as the earnings of his work, like those in Jesus’ parable who present their talents to the master returning to settle accounts (see Matthew 25:19f), or receiving the church from Jesus as a prize. Whatever the case, to be in the company of the church with Jesus in glory is his greatest desire.

The question, Is it not you?, is added by Paul as if his audience in Thessalonica might be surprised to hear the great claims he is making about them. As a pastor and church leader I am admittedly surprised. Is it not the church I present before God as my tribute to his majesty? Or, am I there alone, maybe with the certification of my good behavior or my faithfulness or my curriculum vitae? The church may be a part of it; but, if I am honest, it is a faceless display: Look, Lord, at the growth of the congregation(s), look at the properties, look at the programs, I might say. The rhyme we learned as children comes to mind: “Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors, and see all the people!” The people, that is who Paul has in mind. They are his crown of boasting before the Lord and his glory.

Today, Holy Spirit, I am stunned by the language of love Paul has for the saints of Thessalonica. Instill in me, as a church leader, his love of the people he serves as a brother in the Lord and as a father in the faith.     

The Greatest among You Shall Be Your Servant (Matthew 23:1-12)

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted (8-12).

It is likely that the crowds in this reading had witnessed Jesus’ earlier interactions with the religious leaders, as per our Gospel readings for the past two weeks. Now, the time of testing having ceased, Matthew narrates Jesus’ speaking further to the crowds and to his disciples. At first, it seems his hearers could settle down for more unsettling but still entertaining complaints about the religious leaders. Then all at once, we hear, But you are not to be called rabbi…And call no man your father..Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. It’s almost like he is saying, “You are part of the problem. The Pharisees receive undue deference, why?. Because you give it to them.”

Is Jesus really saying there should be no hierarchy or titles in the kingdom of God? Some have said yes, and we need to listen to that point of view respectfully. One fact that argues against that position is that there was hierarchy and titles in the church from the beginning. More likely what Jesus is teaching here is that in the kingdom of God, there is no grasping after authority by some and no relinquishing of personal responsibility by everyone else. We are all brothers and sisters in knowing God the Father through Jesus the Son, equally blessed and equally accountable. More than that, real authority among God’s people should be marked by humble service. This would be Jesus’ teaching to the disciples time and time again throughout his ministry, and especially in the days leading to his departure from them (Matthew 20:24, John 13:12-17).

Today, in the power of the Holy Spirit, as a disciple of Jesus, let me remain humble as a leader over others, and eager to keep pace as a follower.

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

View more from Geoff Little

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