November 24, 2019 – The Last Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 29C
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Years ago, when I was a newly ordained minister in an unfamiliar community, I wondered aloud to my boss whom I might vote for in an upcoming local election. Sensing that I felt the need to lend my support to just the right candidate, my boss told me a story. Several years before that, the mayor of Montgomery had stopped my boss on the sidewalk during a local parade to thank him and our church for remembering the mayor in our prayers every Sunday. It was a thoughtful remark and showed genuine gratitude, but then the mayor took it a step further: “I’ll try my best to honor those prayers and be a good Christian mayor,” he said. My boss’ reply left him stunned: “Why don’t you focus on being a good mayor and let me worry about the Christian part.”
The mayor was surprised. I, too, was surprised when my boss told me the story. Why wouldn’t an Episcopal priest care whether a politician shared his Christian identity and the values that come with that faith? Because ultimately we can’t trust leaders who look and sound and think like us any more than those who don’t.
Human beings have struggled with identity politics for as long as there have been politics. The ancient Israelites begged God to allow them to have a king—a person who would unite them and rule them and show them the right way to live. God didn’t like that plan, and the prophet Samuel didn’t like that plan. They both told the people that they would regret that decision, that their king would seize their wealth and enlist their children in his army and among his servants, but the people insisted. Finally, God and the prophet gave in. And who was chosen to be their king? Saul, whom the prophet tells us was taller and more handsome than anyone else in Israel (1 Sam. 9:2). Saul was a natural choice because he reflected the image of what all the people imagined a king should look like—a taller, better-looking version of themselves. And how did that work out? At first, things went well, but eventually greed got the better of him, and his faithlessness earned the nation a generational curse that would follow them for centuries.
We project upon our leaders the idealized image of ourselves because what we really want is to be in charge. We think that someone who is like us will want the things we want and work for the causes we would support, and, in a sense, that’s true because they end up being just as self-interested and self-serving as we would be if we were in their place.
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord…It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them.” For generations, God’s people had been led by kings who had taxed the poor in order to give to the rich, who had condemned widows’ houses in order to make way for their own palaces, who had forced back-breaking labor upon their people in order to pay tribute to foreign rulers. Prophets like Jeremiah describe that kind of behavior as “going after false gods.” But by that they mean something more than bowing down before an idol or praying to a foreign deity. Misplaced worship is just a symptom of a deeper problem.
The people of God are called to worship the one who rescued them from slavery in Egypt. They are called to follow the one who led them through the wilderness. They are called to belong to the one who delivered them from their enemies and kept them safe when they were vulnerable. But you can’t do that if you’re trampling upon the poor and the needy. The people had chosen kings because they thought that good and godly leaders would help them follow God, when, in fact, what they got were kings who cared more about themselves than the people they served. In other words, they got more of themselves—more of us.
But how can anyone ever do any better? When the failure of our flawed human nature is a guaranteed outcome, how can things ever change? Jeremiah is able to envision a different possibility: “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, who will reign and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” But this leader is not to be known for his own accomplishments. In fact, he isn’t even significant enough for the people to remember his name. Instead, he will be called, “The Lord is our righteousness.” Not the king is our righteousness. Not the leaders. Not the priests. Not the prophets. The Lord.
Because they are too limiting, I don’t like using masculine images or labels for God when I can help it, but, in this case, the biblical text uses “Lord” in all capital letters to convey that particular deity who is the unique God of Israel. As the story of salvation history shows, that God has a very particular approach to righteousness, which the prophet anticipates being manifest in that future leader.
But what does it mean to declare that that God is our righteousness? As Fleming Rutledge describes in her book Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ, in both the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament, the words “justice” and “righteousness” are the same word, and, in both cases, the root of the word is both a noun and a verb (p. 21). When Jeremiah envisions a ruler who will be known as “The Lord is our righteousness,” he foresees a leader who will simultaneously enable and give way to God’s justice and the judgment necessary to fulfill it—to God’s rightness and the making of all things right.
This is a big change for God’s people, who are being asked by the prophet to stop searching for the leader among them who can do godly things and to start searching instead for God. What might the kingdom—the collective identity of God and God’s people—look like if the Lord were our righteousness instead of an idealized projection of ourselves? It might look like a community that places at its center the values embodied by a criminal, rejected by the powers of this world, abandoned by the zealots of his time, and nailed to a cross as a sign of utter humiliation and defeat.
What does “The Lord is our righteousness” look like? When the penitent thief recognized that Jesus had accepted a sentence of death that he did not deserve, he saw the title that had been placed above his head not as an expression of irony but as an expression of truth: “This is the King of the Jews.” So he said to the condemned, defeated man hanging next to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” How could anyone look upon the dying Jesus and see a king who was prepared to enter into his reign? How could anyone see beyond the agony and shame to behold a royal figure? The thief saw within Jesus a kingdom not built out of power or wealth, of security or prosperity, but of sacrifice and love, of humility and generosity.
Who is our righteousness? To whom do we look to be God’s justice in the world? To whom do we give our faith as the one who can make all things just?