The Prophet’s Eye

Malachi turns to a barnyard image to express exuberant joy.

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading through the twelve Minor Prophets in the Old Testament. I’d long ignored some of them. I thought they had little to say to me. Was I wrong! I encountered a number of surprises along the way.

Just as I was about to end my journey, I encountered one more at the end of Malachi, the last of the twelve. In one of his final paragraphs (Malachi 4:1-3), Malachi looks into the future. He talks of a day coming when all wickedness will be uprooted like pesky weeds pulled up and thrown into the fire. Neither root nor branch of wickedness will survive.

In that day, he says, the “sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” (Malachi 4:2). It’s a beautiful metaphor, even if mixed. It calls to mind–to my mind at least–the detail in the story of Noah’s flood when the dove comes bringing an olive twig in his peak (Genesis 8:1-12). The new day of a cleansed earth has begun.

Then Malachi draws upon an image that caught my breath. In that same day when wickedness is fully uprooted, the prophet says, “you shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall” (Malachi 4:2). Calves leaping and dancing as they race out the stall in which they have been penned up. What an expressive image of exuberant joy!

I loved the image. It’s so vivid. It captures aptly that feeling of joy upon liberation. I think back to the photographs of people dancing in the streets on V-J Day when World War II came to an end. I think of the jig African-American slaves danced when they received news of the Emancipation Proclamation, a day commemorated in Texas as the Juneteenth Festival. I think of the dancing that takes place at weddings.

What also impressed me was the prophet’s observant eye. We don’t know if Malachi was a farmer or grew up on a farm, but he had obviously watched what goes on in the barnyard. He must have seen just this kind of behavior as he watched a farmer release his calves out to pasture.

Discerning God in the Details of Daily Life

This is one reason, I believe, for the power we find in the prophets’ expressions. They often use images in their oracles and sermons. Those images show that they had a sharp eye for the details in daily life. Their messages were messages from God, but from a God who does not live in colorless abstraction, but “has his eye upon the sparrow, and therefore he watches me.”

It is no accident that so much of the prophetic literature is expressed in poetry. The prophets have the gift that poets have. They see in the particular, not in the abstract. And so they see in the particulars of daily living an instrument for divine revelation. Every detail of our daily lives has the potential to reveal the God who creates in a wild diversity of individualities.

How different this is from the spirit of Greek philosophy and science. Greek intellectuals tended to devalue the particular. It expressed transience and therefore imperfection. They sought instead the unchanging universal behind all the variegated diversity of the world. They sought the general laws or principles, not the specific phenomenon, that applied to all. Aristotle expresses this drive when he writes, “…as their names imply, the sciences are sciences of the universal.”*

Modern science follows in this same pathway. It seeks the universal laws that govern all natural phenomena. And often those laws are expressed in the most abstract form: a mathematical formula.

I do not have a scientific mind in this sense. I find it tedious to read page after page of scientific prose that deals in abstract laws. Mathematical formulas remain opaque to me.

A Preference for Story and Poetry

Likewise I have always found it tedious to read page after page of abstract, rational argument, such as we find in many philosophical texts (and theological texts as well). Several weeks after reading such texts I find hardly anything has stuck in my memory. It’s all slipped away.

Why is that? Because there is no vivid image or expression that hooks on to a piece of my brain and becomes rooted there like a barnacle on an ocean vessel. I need the particular to engage me.

I would compare the experience of reading abstract, rational argument to watching a parade of cardboard boxes moving steadily down a conveyer belt in a retail warehouse. Each box comes down the line in the same, basic shape of a tan, rectangular container. There might be incredible treasures inside, but I am not likely to want to pick upon any one of them and open it up.

But then down the line comes a box wrapped in bright, colorful paper. A big red bow winds around the box. Little tiny bells tingle from the ribbon. Now that is a box that will grab my eye. It will entice, and I will want to reach out and pull it off the line, to open it and to explore what treasure may lie inside.

That’s how vivid images or details work for me. They have a power to engage. They hook into my memory. That’s why poetry has such power, even in our age of boring prose.

What is true for me, I believe, is true for a great many people. We need the vivid image or the revealing detail from daily life before something we hear or read hooks into their minds. That’s why so many more people resonate to the telling of a story than to a rational argument. This is a rhetorical strategy that good public speakers use skillfully.

The Biblical writers, therefore, show a wisdom in choosing the literary forms they choose to use. They opt far more for story and poetry to express meaning than for abstract argument. It gives the Biblical texts some of their unusual power to communicate not only concepts, but also to move the spirit.

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* Aristotle, The Ethics of Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics), Book X:9, translated by J.A.K. Thomson. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1962. Page 313.

Mr. Aristotle, Meet Francis of Assisi

How odd the values espoused by Jesus must have appeared to a cultivated Greco-Roman sensibility.

Recently I was reading an author who wrote very appreciatively of Aristotle’s ethics. I had no clue what he was praising. So I pulled down a copy of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics* from my bookshelf. I had read a portion in a college philosophy class, but had not opened it since. I have no idea why I have not contributed it to a used book sale a long time ago.

Reading it has been a fascinating experience. Aristotle locates virtues at the mean between two extremes, extremes of excess and extremes of deficiency.

Courage, for example, is the virtue, he says, that stands in the mean between excessive rashness and extreme fearfulness. The coward has too much fear and too little courage, the rash man too much courage and too little fear. It is the brave man who has the right attitude, for he has the right disposition, enabling him to observe the mean.**

He spends several chapters analyzing various virtues that many cultivated ancient Greeks presumably admired. Aristotle certainly did. It is not always easy to find the right equivalent in English for the Greek words, but these virtues include (in the translation I read) liberality, temperance, magnanimity, proper ambition, good temper, and sincerity of speech and demeanor.

Delineating the Character of a Gentleman

What struck me as I was reading these chapters was how Aristotle’s virtues so fit the qualities that Western civilization has come to associate with the concept of the refined gentleman. That sense of balance that comes by living in the mean seems to describe well the kind of character that we so admire in a cultivated person. Such a person seems to know how to live a disciplined life without becoming either a kill-joy or a debauchee.

Many of Aristotle’s virtues have seeped deeply into the Western consciousness. Maybe that is why I found myself reading these chapters with such pleasure.

But at one point Aristotle called me up short. He is describing the proper disposition of a good man when he has a reason to be angry. On the side of excess Aristotle places irascibility, a tendency to fly off the handle with every provocation. On the side of deficiency, he places what he calls a ‘tameness of spirit,’ a ‘submissiveness,’ or a ‘meekness’ that is an improper response when one has a reason for getting angry and does not.

Such a disposition, Aristotle says, looks like insensibility or want of proper spirit. For if he never gets angry, how can he take his own part? So people think that to swallow an affront, or to let our relatives be insulted, is no conduct for a gentleman.

He then goes on to say in an aside: …people mostly regard a man of this type as going too far in the direction of meekness because of his tendency to forgive an injury rather than seek to redress it.***

The Contrast with Jesus

 When I read this, I thought how different is Aristotle’s viewpoint from Jesus’. “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:5). And when his disciples ask how often they should forgive their brother who sins against them, Jesus responds, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:22)

No one has exemplified that childlike meekness that Jesus lifts up quite like Francis of Assisi. But one has the sense that Aristotle would have found Francis an odd and strange character. He might well have found the life Francis lived incomprehensible, especially Francis’ renunciation of all wealth and his passionate attachment to the life of poverty.

What this does is show for us how strange and odd Christianity must have appeared to the ancient pagan Greeks and Romans that encountered it in the very first Christians. Though some of them certainly admired how Christians cared for one another, they also found the attachment that Christians had to values like meekness, humility, forgiveness, and self-denial inexplicable. These values were so out of step with the values good cultivated Greeks and Romans admired that many of them would have regarded these Christian values as unmanly and unnatural.

The mindset of Western civilization since those early centuries has come to blend the high virtues of pagan culture with the values espoused by Christianity into a synthesis that we tend to think as quite reasonable. We regard this synthesis as so matter-of-fact that we seldom question it as a Christian ethic. But then we read someone like Aristotle in his own words. When we do, I think we begin to sense how odd Christian values appear to someone who has not been infused with those values through long centuries of Christian-influenced education.

As Christianity recedes from the commanding position it has occupied in Western culture in the past, we may become much more conscious of how the two world views sharply contrast with each other. The synthesis may not endure.

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* Aristotle, The Ethics of Aristotle, translated by J.A.K. Thomson, Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1955.

** Ibid., page 97.

*** Ibid., page 128.

The Insult of Second Best

We take God’s name in vain when we offer God anything less than our very best.

I am nearing the end of my journey through the Minor Prophets of the Old Testament. I’ve started the last of the 12, the prophet Malachi.

In the first chapter Malachi denounces those who bring lame, deformed, and diseased animals to the Jerusalem Temple to sacrifice to God. Malachi calls this practice a way they pollute the altar of the Lord.

…you say, “How have we polluted it?” By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not wrong? (Malachi 1:7-8)

They are offering to God something less than their very best. They keep the best of their flocks for themselves.

Would they engage in such behavior, he asks, if they were making a gift to their prince or the governor of the land? Would not the prince feel insulted? So how do they think they can get away with offering God–their creator, redeemer, and the ground of their being–something less than the very best?

When they do not offer their best, they despise God’s name, the prophet says. That implies to me that their behavior is a way they violate the third commandment. They employ the name of God in vain.

What is striking about this passage is the prophet’s conviction that God deserves from us our very best, not our second or third best or worse. This is, I believe, one of the logical conclusions we must draw if we take seriously the Shema, the great declaration of faith of Judaism:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

I also think the prophet expresses a fundamental principle of the spiritual life. If we are offering something up to God, we cannot cut corners. We need to make it the very best we can give. That applies not only to material gifts, but also to our creative endeavors, our work, and our relationships within the faith community.

Now what is our very best varies from person to person, from condition to condition, depending upon the gifts we have been given, whether that is material possessions, talents, or social privileges. What represents the very best for a person of modest gifts and means may be something very different from what it means for an affluent, highly educated, and privileged person. That is the point of Jesus’s comment on the gift of the poor widow in the story recorded in Mark 12:41-44: …she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living.

A Saddening Deception

Let me tell a story that illustrates how giving a deceptive gift to God or to anyone is an insult to the recipient’s dignity and honor. It is a story told me by an Episcopal priest who once ministered in a church in mid-town Manhattan.

His church was an attractive church and therefore became an often requested site for weddings. He had a busy ministry marrying people, at all times during the week. A man asked him to perform his wedding, and the priest gladly consented.

When the ceremony was over, the groom handed the priest an envelope as a token payment for the service the priest had performed. The priest handed the envelope to the bride saying, “I never receive payment for the weddings I perform. When I am given gifts like this, I like to hand it back to the couple I have just married as a small financial investment in their new life together. So I am giving this gift to your bride.”

The bride opened the envelope and found it contained nothing but a folded blank piece of paper.

Though the act did indeed involve an insult to his role as priest , he was not so much offended, he said, as saddened for the bride. She had just said her vows, but she was discovering her marriage starting out on a deceptive note.

If this is how we feel when people try to deceive us in their dealings with us, how much more does God feel saddened by our effort to deceive him? The prophet calls this a way we sniff at God.

“What a weariness this is,” you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says the Lord. Cursed be the cheat who has a male in the flock and vows to give it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished; for I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name is reverenced among the nations. (Malachi 1:13-14)

The application of this prophetic principle to our life today has multiple implications, if we just think about it.

Be as Generous as Children

In the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, we often overlook the critical role of the young boy who volunteered his lunch.

The Gospel of John’s account of Jesus feeding 5,000 (John 6:1-14) is the only one of the four gospel accounts that tell us that in performing the miracle Jesus relies upon the offer by a young boy of his own lunch of five loaves of bread and two fish. We are inclined to read this as a throw-away detail.

But this morning I read a reflection on this text that highlights this lad and his offer as critical to Jesus’ miracle. I like it so much that I am providing this link. It’s well worth your reading.

The reflection Be as Generous as Children is by Fr. Eric Hollas, a Benedictine monk at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. His blog A Monk’s Chronicle is also well worth following.

The Social Message of the Hebrew Prophets

Societies have a responsibility for justice and for their poor and marginalized.

I’ve continued my reading through the Minor Prophets. I’ve been working my way through Zechariah, when I came upon the following passage in Zechariah 7:8-10:

The word of the LORD came to Zechariah, saying: Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.

 I stopped when I read it. It perfectly sums up of the social message we find in all the Hebrew prophets…and the Jewish Torah as well. The Lord calls his people to do justice, practice compassion, to respect the lives and dignity of the poor and the socially marginalized, and to nurture love towards all their neighbors.

There is a bit of a clichéd tone to this summation, because it is the essence of the social message of the prophets repeated by prophet after prophet, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Amos, Micah, et al. It is given classic expression in the words of Amos.

Especially clichéd is the expression “do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor.” All of these terms name segments in Hebrew society that were generally vulnerable and defenseless for they were largely powerless within the patriarchal structure of society.

As we read through the Torah and the prophets, we find these segments of society hold particular concern for God. As some Biblical scholars like to express it, God shows a preference for these vulnerable people in society.

God holds Hebrew society accountable for how they treat these segments. Both Israel and Judah fall under God’s judgment in part because of their record of ignoring the widow, the orphan, the foreign resident, and the poor. (For the prophets, the other great sin of Israel is its unfaithfulness to God, manifested in its pursuit of other gods.)

When I say God holds Israel and Judah accountable, I don’t mean that God just holds individuals in both kingdoms accountable. He does, especially the kings, the nobility, and the merchants. But God also holds these kingdoms accountable as societies. How societies handle their responsibilities for justice and the welfare of all has a determining influence on whether they survive as societies.

Jesus and the Hebrew Prophets

Jesus is consistent with this viewpoint. When we encounter his description of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:31-46, the coming Son of Man separates the sheep from the goats on what basis? On the basis of how they have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, and visited the imprisoned or not.

I, like most Christians, have traditionally read this passage as a description of Christ’s judgment on individuals. But if we read carefully, we find that the judgment is a judgment “of the nations” (in Greek, ta ethne). This is an ambiguous term. The plural can refer to a collection of individuals, but it also can refer to a society. And that is how I think we need to hear it. This is both a judgment of individuals and a judgment of societies as societies.

The standard for judgment is how these societies have treated the vulnerable, the disadvantaged, the powerless of their societies. This is a judgment consistent with the word of the Lord spoken through the prophets.

I don’t hear the Bible specifying how a society must address the needs of its poor and vulnerable. Should we do this through government programs, through private philanthropy, or through changes to economic and social systems? Or through all three? Portions of the Bible seem to advocate each of the three in different contexts.

What I don’t find consistent with the spirit of the Bible is the libertarian stance (favored by many Americans) that society should operate on a basis where every individual must be free to manage his or her own affairs in a live-and-let-live economy. The idea that morals have no applicability to the Market would be anathema to these Hebrew prophets and to Jesus. That should be a sobering message for Americans who lay claim to being Biblical Christians.