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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Thursday, January 03, 2013

Hosea Names the Misleaders

Having sketched the overview of Israel's failure in the opening chapters, using an embodied comparison to adultery through Hosea and Gomer, the prophecy turns in chapters 4 and 5 toward additional explanation of what has gone wrong and how it has gone wrong.  The opening chapters highlighted the bloodthirstiness of the regime and its desire for power to be maintained through military might.  The wealthy families and courtiers lusted after luxuries, demonstrating their sense of upward mobility and class-consciousness.

What has been the centrifugal effect of the ways of this ruling elite?  How did their immorality trickle down to the people?
There is no faithfulness or loyalty,
and no knowledge of God in the land.
Swearing, lying, and murder,
and stealing and adultery break out;
bloodshed follows bloodshed.
The broader society displayed the ways of the rulers.  The commandments are broken:  swearing and lying, murder, stealing, and adultery.  The cycle of violence spirals out of control, as an unbroken chain of bloodshed following bloodshed.  Such behavior results from the people having no knowledge of God.  But why do they lack any knowledge?
My contention is with you, O Priest.
The priests have failed to fulfill their calling.  They have gone after wealth, power, and comfort.  They have allowed or even promoted the practices of worshiping other gods.  They have no faithfulness and loyalty to God, and it is no surprise that faithfulness and loyalty are lacking from the land.  Priests and prophets have rejected the teachings of the Torah.  They have rejected God's ways, which provide a clear path by which to walk, a light to the feet.  Now both priests and prophets will stumble.  God has rejected them.

Hosea says that the priests and prophets "feed on the sins of my people; they are greedy for their iniquity."  How can they feed on the sins of the people?  Why would they want more sinning?  If the sins are idolatrous worship, the priests and prophets may have a financial interest in the idolatrous worship.  Later in the chapter it discusses temple prostitution, to ritual sexual acts with prostitutes according to the religions of the land.  Priests may be connected to this religious pimping.  They may also get funds from the sale of idols.  As Isaiah said, the idolatry is part and parcel of robbing the poor.  Do they charge fees to do priestly duties or deliver private prophetic oracles?  Down to the days of Jesus, such practices made the temple into "a den of thieves."  Hosea speaks of getting a prophecy from a piece of wood or a divining rod.  It would be no surprise that people who ask for such guidance would have to "grease the palms" of the diviners.  And why should we limit our questions to the realm of religion?  Could the priests be organizing other criminal activity?  Is there an underground economy in which they have found a way to profit "on the side?"   

Perhaps another form of their "gain" has to do with encouraging the perception of a gulf between them and the common people (thanks to Dr. Annie Tinsley for helping me think through this one).  As noted above, the elites promoted their status by conspicuous consumption of imported goods, feeding class-consciousness of their own superiority.  Priests also elevate themselves by allowing the debasement of the common people.  In our day, I sometimes describe a certain ecclesial persona:  the "Imperial Pastor," who encourages the image of being above the sins of the commoners, closer to God than most people, more "spiritual" in speech and behavior.  Such a pastor may directly or indirectly claim to be a "covering" over the congregation, elevated in a hierarchy such that the lowly parishioners depend on the pastor for protection from evil.  That does not sound much like a "kingdom of priests" to me.

I am not attempting to diminish the importance of a good leader to bless and benefit the people whom the leader is called to serve.  But it is not by some mystical power or spiritual aura.  It is, as Hosea said, by doing the leader's job of teaching and guiding people in the ways of God.  Hosea says the priests left the people without knowledge of God.  This is not unlike the Imperial Pastor, who cares little whether the people can know God for themselves, but relishes being the expert and the dispenser of spiritual nuggets of wisdom. 
My people are destroyed by a lack of knowledge.
The priests are failing to teach and guide.  Many of them also ignore this learning for themselves.  The priesthood and the role of prophet have become one more path to wealth and prosperity among the elite rather than a service to the people.  So the whole nation is going astray, worshiping anything and everything, anywhere and everywhere, doing whatever seems pleasing, whether drunken orgies or empty sacrifices, ritual sexual acts or building altars to false gods.  And the priests and prophets are the ones on whom this sin rests.  They have been a snare, a net, a pit, to catch up the people and cause them to stumble.  The judgment will come to them. 
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