July 25, 2004

Immanuel Presbyterian Church

The Rev. Dianne O'Connell

Hosea 1:2-10

Psalm 85

Colossians 2:6-15 (16-19)

Luke 11:1-13

 

The God of Commerce vs. God of the People
Middle Eastern Politics: 732-724 BC

The Lectionary reading from the Old Testament this morning is from Hosea, one of the so-called Twelve Minor Prophets.  All Old Testament prophets were political, by the way.  They consistently railed against the political and economic abuses of their day.  Hosea was no different. And if I’m to be true to the readings assigned to us this morning, I can do no less. So forgive me.  But I will temper my remarks as time goes on with our readings from the Letters of Paul and the Gospels.

I’ll also try to let you extend your own analogies and develop your own conclusions as you apply what I’ve found out about Hosea’s world to our world today. But it won’t always be easy for me.  I can be a very opinionated person, sort of like filmmaker Michael Moore.  I should also tell you that I am using material from two respected Old Testament scholars, Norman Gottwald and Bob Coote.  I didn’t just make this all up on my own.

When I first read the passage from Hosea a week or so ago – I read “daughter of whoredom” and all the references to prostitution, and sighed “Oh dear, and we do have a family-oriented worship service.”  As I read further into Hosea, however, I began to remember that the story of Hosea and his prostitute wife was an allegory for God’s relationship toIsrael some 700 to 800 years before the birth of Christ.  I also noted that human nature has not changed much during the past 1800 years.

According to Hosea, Israel had lost sight of the real reasons, the real purpose behind the worship of their God -- and our God -- Yahweh. Yahweh and Hosea were not pleased. “I desire steadfast love (some translations say “mercy”), not sacrifice; the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings,” Yahweh emphatically states (chapter 6, verse 6).

Curious as to why Yahweh was so upset, I dug out some old seminary textbooks and looked up Hosea.  Now I’m probably going to tell you more about Hosea than you ever wanted to know, but I really find this stuff interesting.

First of all, as I said earlier, Hosea is one of the twelve “minor” prophets – called such because the books telling of their work are shorter than the “major” prophets, like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel -- who were much more wordy.  We are assured that the twelve shorter prophets were not less important, just more succinct.  All twelve were wrapped up into one scroll and eventually labeled the “minor prophets.” 

So what was going on during the life of the Prophet Hosea? My Old Testament seminary professor, Bob Coote, uses the term “agribusiness” to explain the problem. He uses the term in his book  Power, Politics and the Making of the Bible. I’m quoting from Chapter 7 – the Great Estates.

Hosea, says Cote, sees God like a husband who is shamed by the fact that his wife -- the rich city-dwellers ofIsrael -- was the mother of children, fathered not by him but by the evil genius of agribusiness.  Hosea takes the family analogy further and predicts that family bonds will eventually temper God’s wrath, and following a time of punishment ofIsrael, God will take back his wifeIsrael and his wayward children and make the land prosperous again.

Prophet Hosea worked about 732-724 BC. Israel was under the rule ofDamascus. There were local kings, the world super power of the time was centered inDamascus.

Israel was divided into two parts during this period: the northern kingdom ofIsrael and the southernkingdom ofJudah. Hosea recalls 100 years earlier whenJudah’s king Jehu staged a bloody coup d’tat against the House of Omri. In addition to murdering Joram of Israel, Jezebel, and Ahaziah, king ofJudah, he eliminated over one hundred royal princes ofIsrael andJudah and slaughtered all the devotees of Baal.

Bob Coote has studied the political and economic fallout of all this ancient activity more than most of us,  and reports that there followed a massive reassignment of estates inIsrael.  As might be expected, the land was given to Jehu’s supporters.   This is the nature of political upheaval – today as well as yesterday.  New government? Re-assignment of land.  Re-assignment of wealth.  Who gets the tax increases and who gets the tax cuts?  All part of an ancient process.

The House of Jehu (or the reign of his descendants) lasted five generations inIsrael, about 100 years.  A lot transpired during those 100  years.  A lot of consolidation of power.  A lot of consolidation of resources. The king ofIsrael in the north and the king ofJudah in the south had collaborated in the commercialization of agriculture, Coote explains.  The family farm, if you will, was absorbed into big state-controlled collectives.  The great landowners were taking the vast majority of the agricultural product –wheat, cattle, sheep, grapes, olives – and exporting it for governmental and personal profit.

At this time oxcarts, says Coote, rarely found in other periods, were used to carry increased produce from the villages to granaries and storehouses on the coast – where they were exported.  The system of commercial had a dire effect on Palestinian villagers. 

While the state was siphoning off production, the villagers could not raise enough food to feed themselves and were borrowing silver against future harvests – and losing their land when they couldn’t pay up.

Sounds a lot likeIreland during the Potato Famine. Ireland was producing all sorts of cattle and grain – but for export!  The Irish farmers themselves ate potatoes.  The blight hit the potatoes, the landowners still sold off the beef and the grain.  And the farmers were starved off their land.

The state-supported religious leaders of the time were engaged right along with the state in oppressing of the villagers, according to Coote.  The agribusiness boom had benefited them, too. The taxes and tithings were the foundation of the religious cult as well as the political system.  The state and church colluded against the people.  

Furthermore, there was little, if any, distinction drawn between the God of Israel Yahweh and the God of Commerce, Baal, in the religious practices of the day. 

Yahwism and Baalism had been pretty much merged, some say completely fused. Yahweh was worshipped as Baal, or along with Baal. Yahweh had a wife called “Asherah.”  The God of Israel – the God of compassion, love, the God of the People  -- had been married, if you will, to the God of Commerce,  or Agribusiness (as Bob Coote calls it) -- the God of the haves and the have mores.  In other words, what’s good for General Motors was considered the Will of Yahweh.

The political and economic scene was about to change.  There was unrest among the people in the area and the world super powers were re-aligning.  In about 796 BC,Damascus was withdrawing from the scene andAssyria was becoming the dominant political force in the middle east.  Hosea saw it all coming.

Who allowed or promoted this to happen? Hosea accuses self-serving kings, political  leaders, priests and prophets of the time. The villagers were taxed at least ten percent of their production for local temple extravaganzas, regardless of whether or not they could survive following payment.  In other words, the aristocracy and the upper classes celebrated their collective prosperity through religious observances financed by the poor.

So how did Hosea attempt to get his message across?  He used the analogy of his own marriage.

In Chapters one through three, Hosea says that God commanded him a marry a woman, named Gomer, who proved unfaithful, but whom Hosea was in the process of attempting to win back.  Yahweh too, he says, is seeking a “re-marriage” with faithlessIsrael

It is possible, some believe probable, that the woman named was a cult prostitute – a worshipper of Baal.   And, of course, Hosea was railing against the fact that Baal worship undermined Yahwism from within to the point that the worship of Yahweh and Baal were completely intertwined.

Hosea’s estimate ofIsrael’s worship practices was largely negative.  The system called for sacrifice and festivals, but had lost sight of the real reason for worshipping God.  At the end of Hosea, the prophet speaks of the age to come, after the destruction of theKingdom ofIsrael.  In the new age, when God renews the covenant with his people and reestablish them in the land of promise, their worship would involve confession of sin, petition for forgiveness, and disavowal of idolatry, both political and religious.

For a moment, I’d like to reflect on what this allegory may mean for our own country, our own political institutions, our own farmers, workers, struggling middle class.  How does the idea of “agribusiness” versus the family farm equate, if at all, with today’s emphasis on multinational corporations – exporting of jobs, importing of oil, taxing the middle and lower classes to fund the festivals of the rich??

While I was surfing the Internet a few nights ago, I received an Instant Message from a friend of mine in easternCanada.  I don’t hear from Murielle Marie Levesque very often – but I do remember that I mentioned her here at Immanuel a few years ago when she sent me a book by a Canadian Anglican priest.  I had used some of the material in the book in a sermon back then: “Mansions of the Spirit,” preachedOctober 3, 1998 – can you imagine that?

Well, this past week, Murielle doesn’t send me a book – but rather forwards to me a letter she had recently received from a niece living inChicago.  The niece is the mother of eight children, a good person, according to her aunt, and a very committed Christian.  The American niece had just written the following note to her curious and politically astute aunt inCanada:

DEAR  MURIELLE,

I AM 100% BEHIND OUR PRESIDENT AS IS BOB!  HE IS A MAN OF GOD AND SEEKS TO DO WHAT IS BEST FOR ALL CONCERNED, EVEN WHEN THEY ARE NOT PROPERLY CONCERNED THEMSELVES FOR THE RIGHT THINGS.  HE IS A CONSERVATIVE AND A CHRISTIAN IN A NATION THAT HAS TURNED IT'SBACK ON GOD AND HAS ACCEPTED EVERY DOCTRINE OF EVIL IMAGINABLE! 

I'LL BE HONEST, I DIDN'T LOOK UP ALL THE ARTICLES YOU SENT.  I KNOW THE MEDIA IS BLACK-BALLING OUR PRESIDENT AND TRYING TO TURN THE WORLD AGAINST HIM.

I SHUDDER TO THINK WHAT LIFE WOULD BE LIKE IF THAT LIBERAL CLOWN (BLANK)WOULD GET IN.   IT LITERALLY SCARES ME, FOR OUR COUNTRY'S SAKE AND FOR OUR MILITARY. THE (OTHER PARTY’S) PLATFORM FOSTERS EVERY IMMORAL BEHAVIOR THAT WOULD DESTROY OUR NATION FROM WITHIN. THEY HAVE NO RESPECT FOR LIFE AND DECENCY, WHAT ELSE MATTERS? IT'S A DISGUSTING SHAME THEY ARE AMERICANS. 

(MEMBERS OF OUR PARTY) ARE FAR FROM PERFECT IN ALL ASPECTS BUT THEY UPHOLD FAMILY, DECENCY, AND THEAMERICAN WAY

WELL I SUPPOSE YOU ARE SORRY YOU ASKED. LOVE, LOUISE

Murielle was horrified.  She asked if there were a lot of Americans who felt the way that Louise felt.  I said, “Yes, about 48 percent of them.”  Another 48 percent adamantly oppose Louise’s point of view.  There are a very few truly open-minded, or undecided – or confused – or completely apathetic -- people in the middle.  These are the people who will actually decide the fate of our country, and possibly the world.

As you can imagine, I strongly disagree with Louise’s assessment.  We also differ in that I don’t believe that “it’s disgusting” that the folks in her 48 percent of the country are Americans.  I don’t know how the country became so completely polarized.  But I’m certain that both ends of the spectrum – as well as in the middle -- have every right to be Americans and that the people in  both camps are “Not disgusting.”

It’s not disgusting, but it certainly is disturbing, that there are not more people in the middle – the searchers.  I’m not there.  I am as committed to the Democratic way of looking at things as Louise is to the Republican Administration’s viewpoint.  And we are both Christians.  We – like people 1800 years ago -- attend churches and religious gatherings where the political issues of the day are obviously discussed. 

We are still faced today with the question of how “married” are the God of Commerce and the God of Love, God of the People?  We still worry about whose prophet is the false prophet and whose prophet is really representing the Will of Yahweh.

Perhaps it’s time to leave Hosea and move up 700 or 800 years. What doesSaint Paul say to the Colossians in about 60 AD.  Verse 8 gives reason to pause:

“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.”

Another version of “Beware of false prophets” idea.  It’s an important admonition and one that I have spent many an evening contemplating.

I hate to be too simplistic, but I have come up with an answer for myself – which is shared by a lot of folks.  After all the confusion of who is right and whose position or interpretation is in error – for me, it boils down to this fundamental:  “What would Jesus do?” 

Jesus would understand the wrongfulness of forcing villagers to “contribute” more to religious festivals and more to international export for the benefit of the rich than they could afford and still feed their families.

Jesus would understand the need to temper our demands that others live according to our “human traditions”, as we understand them, and he would raise an eyebrow to our vilification of those who don’t.

Paul tells the Colossians:

“Do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or Sabbaths.  These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.  Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.”

My own interpretation of the above is NOT that observing festivals and experiencing visions, or most of the other religious experiences, practices and dogmas of our various faith traditions are BAD.  In fact, I believe they are good -- if they bring us into a worshipful space and lead us to love one another.  But the festivals and observances and other “human traditions”– are just the shell.  The substance of our faith must been rooted in Christ. 

A people “without (this) understanding comes to ruin”, says Hosea.

We are told in the Gospel of Luke:

“Ask and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you.  For EVERYONE who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.

It doesn’t say, the door will only be opened for those of your friends with whom you agree.

Not just the Republicans, Louise.

Not just the Democrats, Dianne.

Not just those who follow the same personal and/or political values as either one of us.

If they’re knocking on God’s door, the door will be opened – whether we happen to approve of it or not.

And you know, that might go for all God’s children – be they liberal or conservative, Catholic or Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim or Jew, Agnostic or indigenous shaman – even a “have not” or a “have even more”.

We are in this together.  I guess I am offering two observations from the Scripture this morning:

1.          Beware of  Political and/or Religious Leaders who “marry” political and economic goals with the Will of Yahweh; and

2.         Remain humble.  God is there for all of us, even those with whom we vehemently disagree.

We must not be greedy. God’s will is for all God’s children to prosper.  When we get this message down, God will forgive us our failings and God will bring us home, and we will, indeed, be Ammi: God’s People once again. 

That was the message of Hosea.  That was the message of Saint Paul.  And that was the message of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen.

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