Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Way of the Wicked

The Way of the Wicked
Psalm 1; Mk. 9:30-37[1]
We may be a people who hate consequences, but we are close to fanatical about our “rights.”  We believe that our rights are “inalienable,” which means we believe the founding documents of our experiment in government constitute a foolproof guarantee.  Yet there are many people in our culture who are deprived of the basic rights we take for granted on a regular basis.  And most of us simply turn a blind eye to it.  But how would you like it if everybody over 65 had to renew their drivers license every year to make sure they can really see well enough to drive?  Or what if there were a law that mandated police to pull over young men driving a car alone near elementary schools to check their criminal background for sex offenses?  We believe it’s wrong to single out any group for special scrutiny like that.  And yet we have states that single out certain ethnic groups for special scrutiny regarding their citizenship.  If our Constitution guarantees us rights, shouldn’t those rights apply equally to everybody? 
The hard truth is that whenever we turn a blind eye to the injustice that deprives a minority of their rights, we place our own rights at risk.  Martin Niemöller, a German pastor during the Holocaust, put it this way,
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist.  Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak because I was not a trade unionist.  Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak because I was not a Jew.  Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.[2]
Or, as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it more succinctly, “Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.”[3]
I think the Psalmist was keenly aware of this truth.  Israel had been founded as a commonwealth with an equal distribution of wealth—in this case the land.[4]  Apparently, it didn’t take long for the unscrupulous wealthy to buy up the land from those who were struggling.  Effectively, instead of a nation founded on the justice that gave everyone a means of making a living, Israel became a nation of “haves” and “have-nots.”  Whenever the Hebrew Bible mentions the “wicked,” it typically refers to the wealthy who took every advantage of their wealth to enrich themselves further no matter what it took or whom they had to trample.[5]  And they typically trampled on those who had no means to defend themselves and no recourse.  The “wicked” the Psalmist refers to were these rich land barons who couldn’t care less about justice.  And the Psalmist says this way is one that will perish (Ps. 1:6)!
But Jesus points us to a different way.  In our gospel lesson for today, he corrects the disciples’ misguided ambition by embracing a child, and commends to them that they do the same.  We might see that as a “cute” or “warm and fuzzy” experience.  But the romantic view of childhood that is full of sweetness and happiness is a recent development.  For most of human history, children have been among the least valued people in society—in some contexts little better than slaves.  At least women and slaves in Jesus’ world were viewed as property and had some value.  But for most of human history children have been seen as having no value in society and therefore having no rights. [6]  They were simply mouths to feed and were put to work as soon as they could possibly do something that would benefit the household. 
Jesus not only said to embrace the children—who were the least and the lowest in society.  In another passage, he told his disciples they had to become like children in order to enter the Kingdom of God (Matt. 18:3).  Again, we have romanticized that by envisioning the trusting nature of a child, but I think he was saying the same thing he said to them in our gospel lesson for today.  I think he was telling them that if they wanted to follow him they had to become the last, the least, and the lowest of all.
That is about as contrary to our way of life as you can get.  We praise ambition and we honor those who are first and those who are at the top.  We like our comforts and we believe in our right to a good life.  These attitudes are woven into the very fabric of the way we live our lives—even into the very fabric of our economy, our society, and our culture.  But while we may enjoy the lifestyle afforded us by the rights we cherish, I think we must beware lest we become complacent and ignore the injustice around us.  We must beware when we disregard the welfare of the least and the last and the lowest, because as the Psalmist warns us, that is the way of the wicked, and it is a way that will perish. 
But Jesus calls us to a different way.  He calls us to a way of self-sacrifice.  He calls us to a way of taking last place instead of pushing and shoving to get into first place.  It is the path of caring for the welfare of others, all others, especially the least and the lowest among us.  It is the path of “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God.”  It is the path marked out by the Torah of God that teaches us to love God with all we are and to love others like ourselves. And the Psalmist says that when we delight in God’s truth and follow that path, we flourish like trees full of green leaves and heavy with fruit (Ps. 1:2-3).[7]  In short, when we follow that path, we find it is the way to life.

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/23/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] While there is some discussion about the exact wording of Niemöller’s statement, the gist is clear.  See Harold Marcuse’s page detailing his study of the quote at .
[3] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” May 1, 1963, p. 3.  Accessed at .
[4] Cf. Gerhard Von Rad, Old Testament Theology I:299-300.
[5] Cf. Brevard S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, 181-82;  Shalom M. Paul, Amos, 85-86.  Cf. esp. James Luther Mays, Psalms, 75: “It is characteristic of the wicked in the Psalms to oppose and subvert the practice of righteousness, the conduct that creates shalom”; and J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” in New Interpreters Bible IV:667: “Self-centered, self-directed, and self-ruled, the wicked see no need for dependence upon God or for consideration of others.”
[6]Cf. John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, 265-302;Paul J. Achtemeier, “Mark 9:30-37,” Interpretation 30 (April 1976):182; Judith M. Gundry-Volf, “Mark 9:33-37,” Interpretation 53 (Jan 1999):57-61; Pheme Perkins, “The Gospel of Mark,” New Interpreters Bible VIII:637.
[7] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:684-85.

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