At the back of our Old Testament is a collection of books often called “the minor prophets.” “Minor” not because the messages of those pages are any less important than the messages of the other pages of the Bible, but because they are short books. Compared to Isaiah’s sixty-six chapters or Jeremiah’s fifty-two, some of these books are only one or two chapters long. They have names like Obadiah, and Zephaniah, and Habakkuk, whom we looked at two Sundays ago. The Lectionary, that list of recommended Scripture passages for our worship services, only steers us to the minor prophets for one brief period in its three years’ worth of readings. That period is late Summer and early Fall, of “Year 3” – and that is now. So today we’re going to take advantage of this short Lectionary window of opportunity to look at part of the book by the minor prophet Zechariah.
For many of the events described in the Bible, we can’t be exactly sure of precisely when they took place; but as you heard at the beginning of today’s reading, this situation in Zechariah is given an exact date: the fourth year, the ninth month, the fourth day. A little research reveals this to be December 7, 518 B.C.: on this December 7, a delegation came from Bethel to Jerusalem to ask the priests a question.
Now 518 B.C. is right after the first group of exiles has returned from Babylon, to the ruins of Jerusalem. Babylon had invaded and conquered Jerusalem, in the early part of the sixth century B.C., demolished the Temple, and carried most of the people off to Babylon. Now some of the people, or their children, have been freed to come back to Jerusalem, but the rebuilding of the Temple has not begun yet.
But even though Jerusalem is in ruins and the Temple destroyed, it is still considered the official central point of the worship of God – it is, to the Jews of 518 B.C., where God lives, in effect; if you have a question about God, you go to God’s official priests in Jerusalem.
The question this delegation has, as a matter of fact, has to do with the fact that the first group of exiles had just returned to the ruined Jerusalem. Ever since the Temple had been destroyed in the fifth month of the year 587 B.C., the Jews had been observing the occasion by holding a fast on the fifth month of every year. Fasting, going without food, was a sign of mourning – every year, in the fifth month, the people would mourn the Fall of the Temple by fasting. They commemorated the day the center of their religion was brought down – much the way we might commemorate the death of Jesus every year through the period of Lent, or on the day of Good Friday.
But now the exiles had begun to come back from Babylon, and the plans to rebuild the Temple had begun. So on December 7, 518 B.C., the delegation from Bethel wanted to know: should we keep mourning the Fall of the Temple in the fifth month, or should we stop, now that the Temple is about to rise again? Their expectation would have been that once the Temple was rebuilt, the old rituals of worship would begin again – the sacrifices, the prayers, the offerings of the priests. Since the old rituals would soon be in place again, was it time to leave off performing the new ritual, the fast, the ritual just done in the meantime while the Temple wasn’t there?
This was a crucial question to them because the worship of God was a religion centered around ritual. Take a look some time, for example, at Leviticus 14 to 27: precise sets of instructions for each of several different kinds of worship; different rituals for every situation, for every type of gift. In a religion where ritual was central, the question from the Bethel delegation was very important: which ritual should we follow now, the old one or the new one? Should we keep on with the ritual fasting?
It sounds like a pretty straightforward question, doesn’t it, with a simple answer – either “Yes, keep on fasting” or “No, don’t fast anymore.” But prophets were not ones to give out simple answers. Perhaps they realized that questions regarding the relationship between a person and God rarely have simple answers; or perhaps they knew about the hidden motivations that are so often behind questions about “What am I allowed to do?”; or perhaps they just liked to hear themselves talk. Whatever the reason, prophets usually didn’t hand out simple answers, and this occasion was no exception. Zechariah hears the question put to the priests, and steps in to respond.
Rather than give a “Yes” or “No” answer to a very specific question, he decides to expand the discussion a bit. “Well, let’s not talk about this particular fast of the fifth month, but about fasting in general,” he says, “and let’s not just talk about just when to fast, but why we’re fasting.” It’s a good answer: the people ask “should we go on fasting?” and the reply is “That depends. Why are you doing it?” Are you following the ritual because you seek to please God, or is it for some selfish reason – because it looks good, or because it makes you feel good? Are you really interested in what pleases God?
And then comes the punch line: Because you were told what pleases God. The early prophets told you; Amos and Hosea and Micah told you. And it didn’t have a whole lot to do with fasting, did it? Here is what the Lord says: “Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the alien or the poor. In your hearts, do not devise evil against one another.” That’s what pleases God.
As confusing and long-winded as the prophets can sometimes be, that’s a pretty clear answer after all, isn’t it? What does God want you to do? Show justice, and show love and compassion to one another. And what is justice? Do not devise evil against one another, and do not oppress the widow, orphan, alien, or poor. Those four figures – widow, orphan, alien, poor – function as a symbol throughout the Old Testament. They are a list of those who were disadvantaged in Israel, who did not have property or a means of support like everyone else. So justice is twofold: when it comes to those who are on equal footing with you, who have property or income, do not devise evil against them; and for those who are lower on the economic ladder, those who are poor or without income, take care of them. That’s justice. That’s what God wants.
The Word Commentary on Zechariah rephrases Zechariah’s answer this way: “It is not individual piety expressed in fasting that keeps the fabric of society secure, but honesty, integrity, compassion, faithfulness expressed in one’s conduct, and attitude toward other people.” Micah, one of those prophets of old Zechariah refers to, put it this way: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
What about fasting? The ritual? The good appearance before God and each other? Well, they’re not empty, they’re not worthless, but they’re only the icing, or the tip of the iceberg. What God wants is in the message of the prophets: act justly; show mercy; do not oppress the disadvantaged; do not think evil of each other. That’s the heart of the response to God; that’s the core.
Zechariah’s message went on from there: in verses 11 and 12, he describes the reaction of those who heard the early prophets’ message: “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and stopped up their ears. They made their hearts hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent through the Spirit or through the earlier prophets.” Perhaps it was easier to go on with the rituals and the fasting instead, easier to ask questions like “Should we keep the fifth month fast or not?” than questions like “Am I acting justly, showing mercy, helping the disadvantaged? Am I thinking evil of my neighbor?” A ritual takes an hour or so; a sincere attempt at being just takes a lifetime, radically changes a lifestyle, disrupts and challenges society. No wonder they preferred asking questions about the fifth month fast instead.
The question that arises for us, of course, is: which are we doing? Are we taking seriously the prophets’ message about what God wants, and examining our lives to see if they are just, compassionate, giving, devising evil against one another? Or do we too direct ourselves away from those hard questions to ask ones with easier answers, easier solutions; questions that don’t demand as much of us? When it comes to being religious, what are we substituting for this message about what God wants?
As I thought about this, it was very discouraging to discover how incredibly easy it was to come up with a long list of things we can substitute for a concern for justice and mercy and compassion when we start practicing religion. There are so many pursuits we can chase after in the name of Christianity, so many ways of being busy that distract us from this central message about what God asks of us. Let me run down some of them here, and for each one, let’s ask ourselves: “Do I do that? Do I make that one too important? Do I put all my energy into that when I’m trying to be religious, and forget to think about justice and mercy and compassion?”
In a way, every one of these will be “rituals,” just like the ritual fasting the delegation from Bethel was worrying about. Which rituals do we throw ourselves into, so as to never get around to the “real stuff,” the heart of what God wants?
- First, we have our church rituals, just like they had their Temple rituals, rituals that are important and are meaningful, but aren’t everything. One thing that Presbyteries’ Committees on Ministry are looking for when they interview candidates for the ministry is to screen out those who only seem to want to “play church” – to dress up in the robes, light the candles, sprinkle some incense, handle the communion elements. That’s not all there is to ministry; that’s not all there is to worship. Does our religion go deeper than “performing church”?
- Some of us, second, are prone to a sort of intellectual religiosity, like the Sadducees in today’s gospel reading. These religious experts were spending their time contemplating questions like “What happens if a guy dies, and his brother marries his widow, and he dies, and the next brother marries her, and he dies, and the next brother marries her, and he dies . . .” Now is this important stuff, the burning issue of our day? If you had the chance to ask Jesus one question, would this be the question? How many resources have been spent on questions like “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” and “Can God make a rock so heavy that God can’t lift it?” We can get caught up in intellectual puzzles.
- Third, there are personal ethics rituals – a concentration on “Am I breaking any rules? Am I doing any bad things?” that becomes a preoccupation, a total absorption. Think of how long Christians focused on questions like: “Is it okay if I dance? If I dance on a Sunday? If I dance in a bar? If I get something to drink in a bar? What if I go in a bar with my friends but don’t drink or dance? Well, what if . . . I drive my friends there, but just wait outside and don’t go in, as long as it’s not a Sunday?” We can overdo our “personal ethics” concerns.
- There are busyness rituals. “This week I went to two church services, a hymn sing, two Bible studies, a prayer group, and a Sunday School class. If I’m not religious, I don’t know who is.” Churches as a whole can succumb to this too – groups for every population at any time of day every day of the week talking about anything you can think of. Is that all there is to religion?
- There’s a practice that’s been called “Churchianity” – as opposed to Christianity. That’s when a congregation’s attention becomes focused entirely on maintaining their particular church, and the church itself becomes more important than Christ. Are our choir robes the right color? Do we have enough banners? Is our savings account big enough? Are there any potholes in our parking lot? Do we have enough different kinds of cookies at the coffee hour? These types of questions can go on forever – the process is never over, the church never “perfect.”
- Even politeness can become a substitute for the heart of religion. Are our Sunday School lessons reduced to teaching kids to say “Please” and “Thank you”? Do we stick to lessons and sermons which make us feel good about ourselves, and never ask much of us, never challenge any of our habits and routines? Do we decline to bring up a bad behavior or attitude if it might make someone in the room uncomfortable or feel a little guilty?
My list was longer, and I’m sure you can think of more examples, but I think that’s probably at least enough to get the idea: The point is that there’s nothing wrong with these things – it’s not wrong to light candles, or think hypothetically, or worry about personal ethics, or attend Bible studies, or fix the parking lot, or be polite. But it’s not all there is to what God wants us to be doing, and it’s not even central. “This is what the Lord Almighty says: Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the alien or the poor. In your hearts, do not devise evil against one another.”
The situation of that day so long ago, December 7, 518 B.C., is not as far removed from us as we might think: When it comes to practicing religion, Zechariah’s words ring true to us too. What is important are these things that please God.
Let us pray: God, as we try to follow you faithfully, draw our attention back to those things which are most important, that our worship and discipleship might be pleasing to you. Amen.