Hosea and Jesus (6/9/02) (WOL-Mat.9:10-13)
University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas
Rev. Gary Cox
Throughout history there have been people who insist they have figured out how to please God through religious rituals. Even in the time before written history it seems clear that our earliest ancestors developed burial rituals intended to secure one’s passage into the afterlife. And as religion became more and more defined, and more and more cultic, those rituals were hammered into doctrines.
In our own religious tradition—the Judeo-Christian tradition—rituals developed around the tabernacle and then the Temple. The ancient nomadic Hebrews actually carried a giant tent with them, which was known as the tabernacle, and which was supposed to have been crafted following the precise directions of Yahweh. (Yahweh, of course, is the Hebrew name for God.) This tabernacle served as the sight of religious observance and ritual sacrifice. Once the Hebrews settled in the Promised Land, King Solomon built a Temple, which served as a permanent site for religious rituals.
About a thousand years after the building of the Temple there lived a man named Jesus of Nazareth, who while a devout Jew, called into question the obsession of the Jewish people with ritual and sacrifice. He maintained that Yahweh—our Creator—is a God of love, and not a God of rules and regulations.
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This seems to be what the religious leaders hated most about him—his refusal to rigidly obey the rules. If somebody was hurting on the Sabbath, he had no problem violating the rules and working on that day which was set aside as a day of rest. And what upset people more than anything was the fact he ate with people who were unclean. God was a holy, clean, and perfect God, and people were meant to be clean and pure. A set of purity laws developed over the centuries, and to violate those purity laws was to place yourself outside the reach of God, who insisted on perfection and purity at all times.
Jesus insisted that we had God all wrong. God’s primary nature is not that of cleanliness, or righteousness, or even perfection. God encompasses all those things, but God’s primary nature is that of love—of compassion. It is God’s perfect love that makes God so clean, and righteous, and perfect. This was not a popular message, especially for those in the religious establishment who made their living offering sacrifices to Yahweh in order to cleanse people of their impurities.
People in the modern church tend to forget what a big issue this whole purity thing was at the time of Jesus. For example, remember the story of the Good Samaritan? A man is lying at the side of the road, bloody and beaten, and possibly dead. A priest comes by, and seeing the body, he walks as far away from it as possible. Another priest—a Levite comes upon the scene and also stays as far away from the body as he possibly can. What we have to understand is that for the people of first century Israel who heard Jesus tell this story, those priests did exactly what they were supposed to do. For a person to touch a dead body, or to come in contact with someone else’s blood, was to become unclean in the eyes of God. People hearing this story would have thought those priests did what they were expected—even required—to do.
And look how Jesus turns the story upside down. A Samaritan comes along and actually helps the bloody stranger. And Jesus tells us that this Samaritan was righteous in the eyes of God. What we fail to realize in the modern world is that people would have heard this story and said, “No way! No way is the Samaritan righteous and the priests unrighteous! The priests followed the rules! And the Samaritan—why, everybody knows about the Samaritans. They’re the ones whose ancestors married the pagans. They’re half-breeds and worse. Why, Samaritans are born unclean. Don’t tell us that pagan Samaritan who actually touched a bloody body is pure and the priests who maintained their perfect cleanliness are impure! No way!”
Jesus was really stepping on some people’s toes when he told stories like that. And then, to make matters worse, he more than just told stories. He was constantly making himself unclean. He was often seen in the company of eunuchs and prostitutes, and he even ate with those people! And if there’s one thing everybody knows for sure, it’s that you must go through a ritual washing before meals, and eat only in the presence of the holy, of the clean, of the pure.
In the Bible passage you heard read from the lectern this morning, why were the religious authorities upset with Jesus? Because he was eating dinner with sinners—why, even a tax collector was there among his entourage! And how does Jesus respond to their accusations of religious impurity? How does he respond to those righteous men who indignantly accuse him of violating God’s rules? He say, go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.
Well, that’s the type of talk that could get a guy killed. And it did. But it wasn’t Jesus alone who was killed for such talk. In fact, throughout our religious history, those who have claimed God is more concerned with love than with ritual—with mercy than with sacrifice—have often met cruel fates. We don’t know for sure what happened to many of Israel’s ancient prophets, but it is clear that many of them were killed for saying unpopular things. In a later passage in Matthew, Jesus says to the religious leaders, Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.
When Jesus tells the Pharisees to, quote, go and learn what this means—I desire mercy, not sacrifice, he is quoting one of the ancient Hebrew prophets. Jesus was devoutly Jewish. The person he became developed as a result of his Jewish faith. And when he read the scriptures, he was shaped by prophets like Micah and Hosea, who 800 years before Jesus, were saying things that sounded a lot like Jesus of Nazareth.
The passage to which Jesus refers in today’s Bible text is Hosea 6:6. The most common method of being made clean before God was to have the priest offer a burnt offering on the altar on your behalf. Hosea, claiming to be a vessel of God’s voice, says to the religious leaders of 8th century BC Israel, I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.
That sounds a lot like Jesus. Likewise, my very favorite passage in the Old Testament, written in the same era as Hosea, also sounds a lot like Jesus. In the face of all that ritual, and all that obsession with holiness and purity, Micah 6:8 reads, What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? These were the people who shaped Jesus, and it is no wonder that the religious establishment greeted both Jesus and the prophets with the same lack of enthusiasm.
I thought it would be interesting to take a little time this morning and talk about one of those ancient prophets—Hosea. I don’t spend a great deal of time on the Old Testament, but Hosea is worth a closer look. The Book of Hosea develops this strange and troubling metaphor regarding the relationship between God and Israel. Hosea compares God with a betrayed husband. The nation of Israel becomes the promiscuous wife. He takes this metaphor to the extreme. God is the husband; the wife’s infidelity is Israel’s sin; the husband’s beating of the wife is God’s punishment of Israel; the wife’s repentance and return to her husband is Israel’s repentance of its idolatry; and the husband’s forgiving love and renewal of the marriage covenant is God’s forgiveness of Israel’s sin and God’s renewal of the covenant between God and the chosen people.
Sometimes people tell me they think the Bible is boring. Well, they just aren’t opening to the right pages! If you think the daytime soaps are steamy, you should check out the Book of Hosea. Because Hosea doesn’t just write a story about that metaphor between God and Israel and a husband with a philandering wife. Hosea intentionally marries a woman of ill repute to bring the story to life!
The story begins, When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore a son.
I suppose many of us would like to hear a word directly from God, but I doubt if we would welcome the message God delivered to Hosea. And consider his new wife’s name—Gomer. You know you’re in for a bad time when you wife is named after a goofy Marine. Gomer lives up to her bad reputation, and starts delivering children, none of which are in any sort of biological relationship to her poor husband Hosea.
The Lord tells Hosea what each child is to be named, and the first child is named Jezreel (jez’ ray-uhl). Jezreel was the place where Jezebel and the house of Ahab met their bloody deaths, and the name of this son symbolized the fact that God would punish Israel in a bloody and violent way. (Not a bad prediction since shortly after this writing Assyria would conquer Israel, and ten of the twelve tribes—the ten lost tribes of Israel—would be lost to history.)
Next Gomer conceives a daughter, and Hosea is told to name her Lo-ruhamah (Lo-rue’-umah), which means “God sows.” God tells Hosea to name her this because, “I will no longer show love to the house of Israel.”
And finally Gomer gives birth to another son, and Hosea is told to name this child Lo-ammi, which means, basically, “not mine.” That’s a great name for a kid, isn’t it? Not mine! Of course, the symbolism lies in the fact that God no longer considers the people of Israel to be his chosen people.
Now, if Hosea lived today, we would probably be locking him up in a nice, safe padded room. Anytime a guy names his children, in effect, “Bloody Death, Unloved, and Not Mine,” it’s probably time to be seeking out some professional help. But the message comes through the story loud and clear. The people had turned away from God. What had they done? They were worshipping idols. They were worshipping false gods. And one of those false gods was the ritualistic ways they had developed to supposedly stay in God’s good graces.
Religion had become a game. “You stole something?” asks the priest. “Bring me your finest lamb for sacrifice, and you will regain your purity. You broke three commandments in a single week? That will be two doves, a lamb and your finest calf.” I’m making up the rules here, but the point is there were rules.
I suppose it would be easy for us to look at some of the rituals and traditions attacked by the ancient prophets and Jesus, and congratulate ourselves on having evolved past such petty ideas. I mean, the notion that we can make ourselves right with God by going through a prescribed ritual seems a little insulting to God. What type of God is that, anyway? What type of God looks upon a person in 8th century BC Israel and thinks, “I want to give that person my love, but I can’t. I will not be able to love and forgive that person unless a priest slaughters and burns a cow on a stone altar on his behalf. Then the scent of the burnt meat will be pleasing to me, and I will be able to forgive him.”
What type of God looks down at a man lying bloody and beaten at the side of the road and thinks, “Don’t go near that man! Don’t help him, because if you get any blood on you I will be unable to hold you in my loving presence unless and until, in the company of a priest, you undergo a series of precise ritualistic cleansings.”
It seems clear that Hosea didn’t believe in such a God, and Micah didn’t believe in such a God, and Jesus spent his life telling us that if we were thinking about God in that way, we had God all wrong.
But as Christians, let’s not get big heads over this. The human desire to put God in a little box where we can maintain complete control over the relationship between ourselves and the eternal is very strong. In fact, does any religion have a more detailed set of rules than Christianity? Think about it. Our faith is supposed to be based on the teachings of a person who told us that God’s love is unfathomable; a person whose life was dedicated to the radical inclusion in God’s kingdom of even those the world has rejected; a person who told us to never draw lines in the sand between the in and the out, between the good and the bad, between the clean and the unclean; the person whose entire philosophy of life can be boiled down to four simple words: Love everybody; judge nobody.
Isn’t it almost incomprehensible that in the name of that person we have built one of the most exclusive religions the world has ever known?! Practically every version of the Christian faith has some element of “we’re in and they’re out.” Even at very liberal seminaries, like the one I attended, the majority opinion is this: We are radically inclusive. Everybody is a part of God’s kingdom, as long as they’ve been baptized.
WHAT?! How is that so different from the rituals that purified people three thousand years ago? Once again, we have put God in our little box. We have envisioned a God who is powerless to act unless a person with religious authority performs a ritual on our behalf! So do we still believe in that God who looks upon a person and says, “I would love to have that person as a part of my eternal kingdom. She works all day for the poor, and gives selflessly of her material wealth. She does justice, loves kindness, and walks humbly through life with me in her heart. But alas, she is doomed forever, unless some ordained minister pours some water over her head?!”
Baptism is a wonderful and meaningful sacrament, but let’s not pretend we control God with our rituals. Likewise, after discussing religion with one of my fundamentalist friends—something I don’t do anymore—and trying hard to find some common ground, she finally said, “I see your point and maybe you’re right. Christianity is a big tent, and as long as people believe Jesus was born of a virgin, shed blood and died for our sins, and will come again for the final judgment, the other details don’t really matter. It is okay for them to call themselves Christians.” I stopped arguing with her, but as far as I’m concerned she drew one huge line in the sand between who’s in and who’s out when she established those three rules for being a Christian.
Okay, I’m a Congregationalist. I don’t like rules and regulations. I personally enjoy ritual, but hope we always keep it in perspective. Christian rituals, from baptism to Communion, are ways we embrace the mystery of life, of Christ’s presence among us, and celebrate God’s love in our lives. They are not strings we pull to move God into certain positions.
Well, here we are in the 21st century. If Hosea and Micah could see us now, they would probably say, “Wow. The more things change the more they stay the same.” But let us vow to keep their prophetic voices alive. Because now, like then, most religious people want to turn faith into an exclusive club. And that’s just not the way it is. It has never been popular to say, “If you think you’re in, you’re out; and if people think you’re out, you’re in.” It’s kind of a crazy world sometimes, but that’s the way the world is…at least, according to Hosea, and Micah…and Jesus.