The ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel were attacked by the prophets for their betrayal of Israel’s ancient vision of a people governed by faithfulness and mercy. The founding story of these two nations linked by a common faith and shared story told of an oppressed people delivered from bondage. The legal code that governed them was attributed to the God who had led them out from Egypt and encountered them at Mount Sinai.
What we refer to as the Ten Commandments encapsulate a set of laws and customs that defined a just community. One of the pivotal commands was to remember that they had been slaves in Egypt and even the cattle were to have one day of rest in seven.
This law of Israel was applied to all people without regard to wealth or status, a radical idea in the ancient world.
There are features of that law that seem harsh and uncivil to us now, but in the world of its time, they are remarkably concerned with protecting the vulnerable and preserving the community.
Faithfulness and mercy, freedom from bondage, care of the poor, protection of the weak, reconciliation in the community – these were the hallmarks of the biblical code. These were the core principles of its ancestral faith. But there was money to be made. And the kings turned their allegiance toward the gods of wealth and power. The battle for the faith and life of the nation that raged between prophets and kings gave us some of the most brilliant, majestic and damning poetry of the ancient world.
Woe to those who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is no more room,
and you are made to dwell alone in the midst of the land. …
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil,
who put darkness for light and light for darkness,
who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes,
and shrewd in their own sight!
Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine,
and valiant men in mixing strong drink,
who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
and deprive the innocent of his right.
– Isaiah 5
This conflict also gave us some of its most sublime poetry.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
– Micah 6:8
That struggle between a just society and the trust in wealth and power still rages in the human community – and in the soul of our country. Are we to follow a founding vision of freedom and liberty for all, or one of unrestrained privilege and power for those able to grab it?
We are at a moment in our national life when we would do well to recognize the witness of all human history that the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of the few always leads to collapse. The neglect of faithfulness and mercy leads inevitably to great woes.
For a country that has such deep roots in the biblical tradition, we should listen anew to the voices of the prophets. And those among us who hold to the Christian tradition need to remember that God did not send the prophets to predict the coming of Jesus, but to denounce the idolatry that was destroying the nation.
The Rev. David K. Bonde is pastor of Los Altos Lutheran Church. For more information, visit losaltoslutheran.org.