Today’s message includes insights from both Micah 3:5-12 and Matthew 23:1-12. The timeless topic includes avoiding false prophets while also practicing what you preach. Or put another way, avoid life-destroying hypocrisy by matching your life walk with your religious talk.
“Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry ‘Peace’ when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths” (Micah 3:5). This verse highlights fake religious prophets, those who speak from comfort and convenience but who have no sympathy or empathy for the vast majority of citizens trying to survive. This problem of elites speaking easy words while ignoring reality has always been problematic. People in power often turn a blind eye toward the marginalized, miserable masses. As if to keep suffering people in their place, fake prophets often bring out the worst in people by shifting blame and inciting hatred against the victims.
The true prophetic voice has no constituency to serve except people who seek facts and the truth. Legitimate prophets do not spew misleading statements intended to reinforce the fear, ignorance and anger of their political or religious base. Instead, God’s truth challenges everyone and everything to a higher moral standard. No one is exempt from facts and faith, from perceiving how things really are while also embracing transforming, spiritual vitality. Sadly, many people stubbornly refuse to recognize or follow God’s voice. Evil rulers and would-be authoritarian dictators emerge from the pit of hell to seduce and ultimately destroy unwary citizens.
Turning to Matthew, it is onerous religious bureaucrats who are in the crosshairs of Jesus’ message. Speaking about the elites controlling Israel’s secular and religious institutions, Jesus said, “. . . do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach” (Matthew 23:3b). The Jewish religious authorities apparently shared some decent teaching but they weren’t following their own words and instead became monstrous hypocrites. Hypocrisy is nothing new and people from all walks of life are vulnerable. However, hypocrisy is magnified when it is propagated by people in authority who refuse to follow God.
What about religious authority and how it impacts the church and individual conscience? Since the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth-century, there hasn’t been a consensus about what kinds of human authority should control religious institutions. The problem with authority can be traced all the way back to Jesus’ Apostles, who argued who among them was the greatest. As with just about every other religion, the problem of institutional authority plagued ancient Judaism. Religious elitism both then and now accompanies peoples’ hypocrisy.
There are grand titles and holy offices in the earthly church. Sadly, there are equally corrupt and horrific abuses of power by these same people, those who gleefully wield their authority like a butcher knife. For modern Christians, the issue is not simply about the historic conflict between Protestants and Catholics (or ongoing negativity with any other denomination). Throughout American and Christian history there are never-ending debates about church structure and what degree of autonomy churches and individuals should enjoy. Everywhere, the issue of human religious authority continues to fester while the truth is often obscured.
The legitimacy of church hierarchies and who best speaks for God cannot be settled here. What can be done is to raise awareness about who and what impacts individuals lives, for both better and worse. God is the source of all spiritual authority, but whom and under what circumstances this authority is shared in religions and churches will not likely ever be agreed upon. At least one thing is certain: When you encounter prophets and religious elites caution is critical. Avoid being manipulated by power-hungry wolves, those who arouse dark and dangerous instincts rather than empower people with the truth of God’s light.
Each person of faith must accept the responsibility for living a life guided by principles encouraged by facts and faith. Earthly authority will wax and wane depending on many social and psychological factors. However, followers of God thrive as they emphasize the believer’s relationship between God and the individual, without meddling intermediaries or false prophets. No one can do for you what you and God can accomplish together. There is no short-cut, no priestly class or caste who can perform a magic ritual absolving you of responsibility. No, it is the truth that shall set you free, not rubber-stamps and false assurances.
Hypocrisy isn’t easy to avoid, but admit the challenge and never give-up. Discrepancy between what a person says (s)he believes and their attitudes and actions is a constant struggle to overcome. Hypocrisy can ensnare anyone and is notoriously difficult to overcome without arduous self-management through the power of God’s Spirit. Aside from holding the religious bureaucrats accountable, individual Christians must ensure that their lives demonstrate God’s love and truth. Let’s encourage one another to stop listening to false prophets, lying politicians, and anyone else who seeks unscrupulous advantage. Speak the truth to power and continue the splendid struggle of attaining spiritual health and happiness.