Lectionary Commentaries for December 18, 2011

from WorkingPreacher.org

Narrative Lectionary

Commentary on Malachi 3:1-7; 4:1-2, 5

Richard W. Nysse

The opening affirmation of the book of Malachi should be read across the book.

Every threat, every announcement of judgment is framed by the words “I have loved you.” In the closing verses, Elijah, the prophet, is sent, an action which embodies the love of God for the addressees. The return of Elijah “will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.” The intergenerational reconciliation is symbolic of the restoration God will accomplish in order to dwell among the people. Given what is castigated in the book, one could add additional images of the refined and purified people that God will create:

  • priests will offer fitting sacrifices and faithful instruction
  • widows, orphans, & resident aliens will no longer be oppressed
  • workers will receive a non-oppressive wage
  • adultery and falsehood will not occur
  • the fear of God will abound.

The current situation among the leaders and the people reverses each of these depictions. They are not currently a refined and purified people; they shortchange their sacrificial obligations and they oppress the vulnerable. The fear of God does not abound. They have no virtue that could endure the judgment of God if “judgment” was the only future God would enact.

“I have loved you.” If this had not continually been the case, Israel would have perished long ago. Their resistance has been as longstanding as God’s persistence (3:6-7). “I have loved you.” Without that, there is no future; there would be no root to sprout new growth (4:1). Stubble and ashes would be the end of the story.

“I have loved you” is an assertion of a God-created and God-given relationship. And, we must add, it is a God-recreated and God-sustained relationship. If no one can endure or stand in the day of the Lord’s appearance, then God will have to create and sustain that which can endure and stand.

If the interpreter/preacher does not keep God’s action in the opening assertion (“I have loved you”) at the center, the hearers’ hearts will revert either to doubting God’s transformative love or to quarreling with the expectations of a covenanted relationship.

The book of Malachi is distinct in the frequency of questions. The people ask:

  • How have you loved us? (1:2)
  • How have we despised your name? (1:6)
  • How have we polluted it (God’s altar)?
  • Why does [God] not [acknowledged our offerings]?” (2:14)
  • How have we wearied him? (2:17)
  • Where is the God of justice? (2:17)
  • How shall we return?” (3:7)
  • How are we robbing you? (3:8)
  • How have we spoken against you? (3:13)
  • What do we profit by keeping his command or by going about as mourners before the Lord of hosts? (3:14)

Rather than move to repentance, the questions suggest efforts to dispute the charge, deflect responsibility, or claim that God is not doing God’s part. They resist being the people of God; limited, perfunctory obedience is the most they offer. They slide from superficial devotion to God via defective sacrificial animals to civic injustice to abandoning first wives to marry foreigners and finally to worshipping foreign gods. False worship and injustice are intertwined.

When challenged in the book of Malachi, the opponents of the word of the Lord shift from indifference to defensiveness and finally to blaming God. God doesn’t, to their way of thinking, bring them any advantages. After all, look at the prosperity of those who are more evil than they — God is doing nothing to inhibit those evildoers (3:14-15). Such is the hearer’s retort to God’s opening assertion (“I have loved you”).

After all that depiction of resistance and disobedience, one could resume calling for repentance. There are sentences which at first seem like the answer to the disputes is to assert once again the need to repent in order to gain the rewards of the covenant. In such a move, the implication is that the weariness and the indifference of the people can be turned around with sufficiently shocking exhortation. There are calls for repentance: “Return to me” (3:7); “Bring the full tithe” (3:10); and, “Remember the teaching of my servant Moses” (4:4).

These calls for change are served by alternate scenarios for the future. Threat of destruction is one move; it emphasizes the language of destruction (e.g., “burning like an oven,” “stubble,” “neither root nor branch,” and “ashes” [4:1-3]). The opposite move emphasizes the offering of a prosperous and victorious future (e.g., “I will rebuke the locust for you,” “all nations will count you happy,” “I will spare them,” and “you shall go out leaping like calves” [3:11, 12, 17; 4:2]). In the rhetorical structure of a call for repentance the future is contingent on the response of the addressees. But the good possibility sketched in a call for repentance should not be mistaken for the Gospel. To do so would make the Gospel contingent; it would be a return to requirements, a condition that has not be met.

Given past history, why would the book of Malachi have any reason to hope that a call for repentance would be any more successful than in the past? (“For since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statues and have not kept them” [3:7]) There may be a slight tilt toward seeking God (3:1) — maybe even a bit of delight (3:1). But this will not be sufficient to endure the coming of God to judge the nations and the people. “Who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears?” No, God will have to produce an enduring people.

Thus, the announcement of the text: God is sending a messenger to prepare a durable people. The refining and purifying is an act of judgment, but it is also an act of preparation. God produces the people who can endure God’s judgment. The opening announcement of God’s work in chapter three is echoed at the end of chapter four. God is sending Elijah to produce a reconciled community. Through the messenger Elijah, God produces a people that will survive the “great and terrible day of the Lord.” They will not be subject to a “curse” (4:6). The Hebrew term can be translated “ban of utter destruction.” The word is herem, the term use for the destruction of the nations in Joshua.).

The Gospel in Malachi is not a contingent offer: If you obey, return, tithe properly, etc., you will be prosperous and you will gain revenge over you enemies. That is not the core assertion; Malachi is not a roadmap for success. But what about: “You shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet” (4:3)? It is a verse we might be tempted to leave out of our public reading of Malachi, but on the other hand, it may be an excellent verse to use to clarify the gift of the Gospel in Malachi. “You shall go out leaping like calves” (4:2) — yes, you will stomp around freely. The wicked will not inhibit the dancing. The refined and purified people God has made are not the agents of the destruction of the wicked. God has reduced the wicked to stubble, burned them up (4:1) and turned them into ashes. The great and terrible day of the Lord is a day of dancing for the people God has made.

But how do I know that I am among the people God has made? How do I know I am not to be stubble and ashes? The answer is not self-evident given the degree to which the defensive and quibbling questions of the people (see the list above) resonate with my/our own questioning. Furthermore, consider the degree to which what God will judge parallels my/our own conduct (reread 3:5 at this point).

Again and again, we need to hear the opening declaration of the book: “I have loved you.” Our words and deeds repeatedly create the separation expressed in the question “How have you loved us?” In the wake of the destruction wroth by our separating from God and one another, we need to hear: “I have loved you.” God has refining and purifying work to do; God has to move us from being the wicked to being the refined. And, God has promised to do exactly that and no less.

Malachi brings us deeply into recognition of who we are and sets us before God’s election and creation of the people of God. (See Romans 9 for the New Testament’s equivalent positioning.)