Reading: Jeremiah 23
One thing that is absolutely terrifying about ministry and leadership is how harsh scripture is with leaders. Today, we discussed false prophets and greedy priests. When Jesus condemns the scribes, the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees — he’s condemning the religious leaders. When Jesus drives the money changers out of the temple, he’s addressing an issue within organized religion. When I read Jesus and the prophets, I notice that just about everything that is harsh is directed to leaders and preachers: It is terrifying.
As I mentioned yesterday, Jeremiah is not only a prophet, but his father was a rather important priest. Jeremiah is speaking to his peers — those people who try to represent God to others, just as he did, and his father did before him. Jeremiah starts off Chapter 23 with words “Woe to the shepherds,” and goes on to talk about false prophecy. Jeremiah talks about pastors who scatter the ‘flocks’, and preachers who lie about God’s words. Jeremiah is calling out greed, dishonesty and corruption.
I will confess two things: First, I spend a good deal of time defending pastors. It often seems that they are accused of theft and fraud, even if they do the work of a pastor on a volunteer basis, and only take reimbursements. There is this odd sense that because a few very well known names have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar — everybody is doing it. The truth is, if the cookie jar is the church bank account, very few pastors are allowed to sign checks. Of course, I don’t know any pastor who wants the responsibility. People insinuate embezzlement even when you can’t touch the money.
The second thing I will confess is, unfortunately, these accusations do not come out of nowhere. Jeremiah’s words to preachers that behave badly is no less relevant now than it was then. There have been people who embezzled. There are others who have used their positions to manipulate people out of money, seeking after their own gain. Many of us have our favorite examples — and, if we watch the news closely it won’t be many months before a new example comes up. I personally will refrain from speculating about the validity of various high profile ministries, because I don’t want to get into specific scandals, and I absolutely hate trial by media; I just want to acknowledge that the problems Jeremiah saw are still relevant today. These issues never stopped being relevant: Isaiah spoke against corruption, Jeremiah speaks against corruption, Nehemiah and Micah spoke against corruption after the Babylonian captivity was over. Jesus spoke against corruption that was happening when he ministered, and there were times that Paul spoke against corruption within the early Church. I’m not surprised there is corruption now as well. Corruption happens — I don’t expect this to change any time soon. If I ever stop hearing about corruption, I will believe that it got so bad that nobody even thinks to mention it anymore.
Jeremiah also gives some pretty hard advice to everybody: “Don’t listen to the prophets, they are deluding you.” It is hard for those of us who hope somebody will listen, including me, and even Jeremiah himself, and it is hard for everybody who wants to listen — and does not want to do the work of listening critically. Because of corruption, we have to take preachers messages with a grain of salt — sometimes just one grain is not enough. Actually, I’d advise scrutiny any time somebody asks for a donation. There are lots of great giving opportunities — but, fraud, unfortunately, exists.
While said I wasn’t going to do an exposè on preachers who are out for money, I am going to let you know that problems with “false prophets” are prominent enough that we can experience this church-corruption without there being a huge media storm about the pastor involved. As I said, I don’t like trials by media, but, I will give three examples that stuck in my mind — all of them are a few years old:
The first example is a famous one; and pretty obvious when talking about false prophets. One of the end times prophets is named Harold Camping. As you know, I’ve lived through enough dates for the end of the world that I generally start ignoring somebody as soon as he starts talking about it — but, Camping brought up something that caught my attention: He was soliciting donations, and encouraging extraordinary generosity as, when the rapture comes, you won’t need it anyways. While this is true, I was absolutely terrified at the prospect of people being asked to send in their retirement funds — and, I seriously wondered how many people would notice that if the rapture came on the date that was predicted, Harold Camping’s ministry shouldn’t need it either.
The second example is not one of wry amusement — but a rather profound thing that happened when I was a teenager. The pastors in my yearly meeting had a group health insurance program that a large portion of them participated in. The company they contracted with was a “Christian” company, founded by a preacher’s kid. The company knew churches, and how to work with churches. There, of course, is nothing wrong with a company that specializes in the needs of non-profits — non-profits are different, and sometimes different needs a specialist.
The experience with this company was good, and continued to be good for several years. Like all good relationships with insurance companies; people paid their bills and didn’t think about it much. One year, the company simply stopped paying claims: They did not stop taking in money, but they stopped paying out. There were a couple large claims within the Yearly Meeting that year, and not surprisingly, these claims went to collections. The FBI got involved, and it appears the CEO embezzled from the company; one hopes he was not sentenced to federal prison otherwise. I remember an effort to raise money to cover medical bills while they looked for a new insurance provider — being part of a church that was a victim of fraud left a life-long impression of me.
The last thing that caught my attention is something that came up after Google. One thing that people who want to preach do is read and listen to other people’s sermons. I have a few pastors who I follow; and, from time to time I follow pastors who are relatively famous. I lost a lot of respect for a pastor that I knew when I visited the church where he pastored, and recognized the sermon I heard that week. It wasn’t that there was a large quote — it was more like if there were any differences (including personal examples), the difference was a mistake.
As I had recently been a student, I had the seriousness of plagiarism drilled into me. As you might know, getting caught plagiarizing a paper is enough, by itself, to either be administratively withdrawn, or automatically failed. If there is suspicion that it is a deliberate pattern of behavior, it is something that can get you kicked out of school. The standards that we had to live up to were so high, that if I were to reuse material that I had turned into another class without explicit permission from both professors, it would be considered plagiarism — this is not because my school was stricter than other schools, but because they followed written standards such as MLA or APA.
Even without this experience, I would feel pretty angry if I visited a church, and heard my own sermon; people like to get credit for their work, and it is angering when somebody else takes credit for your work. It came out as wrong, not only because I was taught that it is wrong, but as somebody who `does the work’, it feels terribly unfair that somebody can get credit when somebody else does the work. I might have needed Google to know what was happening, but this is yet another example of something that does not change, for we read in Jeremiah 23:30: “I am against the prophets who steal from one another’s words.” It happened without the convenience of the Internet, and was condemned without a modern sense of ethics.
Jeremiah offers one more habit of false prophets in chapter 23: borrowing authority from God. I imagine all of us have been part of an argument, especially in a church setting, where something was framed in such a way that God supported one side, and the other side was turning away from God. While sometimes, there might be something to that argument, most times it is just a petty need to win an argument. One thing that is very tempting to do in an argument is to try to take some authority that one does not have! God, and the Bible can become such an authority.
The danger is, one can search the Bible for any phrase that sounds good in an argument. In more extreme cases, you end up with the problem that you can say just about anything you want using “Biblical language.” There are a lot of words in the Bible, and they can be rearranged, or simply taken out of context to support any opinion. There are a couple problems with this — not the least of which is that everybody in the room shares the work of interpretation. The language serves to signal that there will not be a conversation, because the speaker speaks with God’s authority.
Another problem is quite simply, searching scripture to win an argument shows a rather low view of scripture. This approach views scripture as a tool; making it subordinate to the views of the person thus using it. The false prophet who attributes God’s authority to his voice is using God as a tool. God isn’t supposed to be a tool to help us win arguments, and scripture was not given for that purpose either. Scripture has something to challenge and convict every one of us: but using scripture as a weapon renders it ineffective for the purpose that God gave it to us.
Of course these passages we read today are not the normal things that a preacher talks about. They are challenging in a personal way. You see, all of these failings come from rationalizing and compromising. Greed is so common, I think it is nearly universal. It is also extremely common to want to be seen a person of authority. Any preacher can see that there is a real danger of becoming one of these “false prophets”
Its also hard for a preacher to tell the congregation to take what preachers say with a grain of salt. I happen to believe that all of us are Biblical interpreters and theologians; and as such, I do think something rather important comes up: No amount of education brings a unified understanding of scripture, or the nature of God; Professional scholars argue matters of interpretation more than any of us — if study brought perfect knowledge and perfect interpretations this would not be so. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 13 that “we know in part, and we prophecy in part.” It does not matter how much anyone wants to be certain that he is right; it is not going to happen. Everybody, even the best of teachers, still have a lot to learn.
In the end, I think the biggest challenge is even true prophets can have false moments. The falseness Jeremiah condemned is the falseness of using God to bolster personal opinions, taking credit when somebody else deserved it, and greed. I have to confess, temptation is there, and there are moments when falseness seems quite pragmatic. Two of the hardest lessons I learned in life are: first, that nobody is above scrutiny and second, a public failure does not discredit all the good a person has said and done.