Thursday, March 07, 2013

Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 1.6-10

Malachi 1.6-10

[6] A son honors his father, and slaves honor their master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the LORD Almighty. “It is you priests who show contempt for my name. But you ask, ‘how have we shown contempt for your name?’ [7] By offering defiled food on my altar. But you as, ‘How have we defiled you?’ By saying that the LORD’s table is contemptible. [8] When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the LORD Almighty. [9] “Now implore God to be gracious to us. With such offerings from your hands, will he accept you?” – says the LORD Almighty. [10] “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the LORD Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands.”

==========================

COMMENTARY:

Calvin’s discussion of this passage is interesting because it seems to be a bit autobiographical. His primary concern throughout is to explain the logic of how Malachi condemns the priests here. The root problem, as Calvin sees it, is that the priests have been lax in upholding God’s commands concerning right worship of him. Calvin suspects that their motive for sacrificing sub-standard animals, etc, was personal well-being. Placing Malachi’s ministry during the return from exile, Calvin speculates that the Israelites were hesitant to bring forward the best of their animals for sacrifice due to a general shortage of good stock. Concomitantly, the priests accepted sub-standard offerings because they worried that if they did not, they would not be able to survive (remember that the priests largely lived of the people’s offerings). So Calvin concludes:
We now then perceive why the Prophet objects to the priests, that they had called the table of Jehovah contemptible; not that they had spoken thus expressly, but because they had regarded it almost as nothing to pervert and adulterate the whole of the divine worship according to the law, which was an evidence of religion when there was any (491).
How is all this autobiographical? Well, if you know anything about Calvin’s Geneva, you know that he took the “lawful” worship of God very seriously. He chalks the priest’s actions here up to a failure of nerve, and in this statement one can easily hear Calvin’s dedication to avoid their error. Indeed, this is almost a pep-talk to himself and his colleagues, as well as a barb for his opponents:
As [the priests] allowed to others so much liberty, it appeared quite evident that the name of God was but little esteemed by them; for had they possessed true zeal, they would not have suffered the worship of God to be trodden under foot or profaned (485-6).
Of course, Calvin backed such words up with action, refusing to administer the Lord’s Supper to certain of the native Genevan political leaders who opposed the Consistory’s discipline in face of threats of physical harm. One story goes so far as to say that when certain of these folk stormed the table in an effort to forcibly compel the ministers to serve them, Calvin threw himself on the table, covering the elements, and declared that they would only receive the Supper over his dead body. This cowed the belligerents. Also, one must remember that Calvin and the Genevan ministers went about unarmed in an age when men generally wore (and frequently unsheathed) swords.

Enough of this anecdotal and historical diversion, and back to the text. Calvin raises the not-unreasonable question of why God would be so concerned about the quality of sacrifices when in other places we find statements about the insignificance of sacrifices when compared to practices of justice, for instance. One thinks here of Hosea 6.6, for instance. Calvin’s solution is to think in terms of degrees. Whereas in Hosea the sacrifices are lawfully carried out, albeit legalistically, in Malachi they aren’t even performed properly. So Calvin:
Had all their victims been fat or well fed, our Prophet would have spoken as we find that others have done; but since their faithlessness had gone so far that they showed even to children that they had no regard for the worship of God – since they had advanced so far in shamelessness, it was necessary that they should be thus convicted of impiety (491).
Hosea takes aim at those are self-satisfied in the propriety of their worship of God, while Malachi goes after those who can’t even be bothered to go through the motions properly.

PRAYER:

(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that as thou has been pleased in thine infinite mercy not only to choose from among us some to be priests to thee, but also to consecrate us all to thyself in thine only-begotten Son, - O grant, that we at this day may purely and sincerely serve thee, and so strive to devote ourselves wholly to thee, that we may be pure and chaste in mind, soul, and body, and that thy glory may so shine forth in all our performances, that thy worship among us may be holy, and pure, and approved by thee, until we shall at length enjoy that glory to which thou invitest us by thy gospel, and which has been obtained for us by the blood of thine only-begotten Son. – Amen.

==================================

2 comments:

Matthew Frost said...

Interesting to make the connection to the office of the keys and excommunication. I've always found that an inapt analogy, between sacrificial altar and table, but it never stopped people from making that a direct analogy, as though we were offering something of ours on the Lord's Table.

It is the priest's job to make sure, on behalf of the people, that what they offer to God is just before it is offered. It is one thing if the best one has is meager; it is another if one keeps the best for oneself and offers less. Perhaps we could say as much of the eucharistic elements, but to suggest that the worshiper who communes is offering herself, as though she were the sacrifice and had to be worthy of God, is deeply problematic.

Here is a place where the "priesthood of all believers" is at least a partially useful paradigm. How else should we come to eat what is offered, if indeed the table is an altar? But concern over whether or not we have offered what is best before God seems like it should have nothing to do with the eucharistic meal.

W. Travis McMaken said...

I certainly wouldn't want to talk about eucharistic sacrifice in a propitiatory sense, but there is also the 3rd-use-of-the-Law sense in which one places one's own life at God's disposal as an act of obedience. This may be a Lutheran / Reformed difference in emphasis. ;-P