“You tyrant, why do you boast of wickedness
against the godly all day long?…
You love all words that hurt,
O you deceitful tongue.” -Psalm 52:1,4
“Be like an astute businessman: make stillness be your criterion for testing the value of everything and choose always what contributes to it.” -Evagrius
No preacher can read Psalm 52 this week, with its condemnation of a tyrant that loves “lying more than speaking truth” and “words that hurt,” without thinking of Donald Trump and the latest of his racist outrages. Add to that Amos, who receives an oracle that condemns a people of religious pretenders more interested in economic exploitation and power than goodness, and we have a scriptural witness that seems tailored for our time.
But in reading the whole of our scriptures for Sunday, I cannot help but think that there is “a better part” that we must choose—a stance that begins with Amos’s call to “be silent,” continues in the example of the green olive tree in Psalm 52, and rests with Mary’s listening at the feet of the Lord.
The trouble Trump has always presented to his critics is, as a recent New York Times editorial put it, a bind that is hard to escape: “They can take his bait and fight back, participating in the divisive distraction he’s designed to energize his supporters, or they can ignore his outbursts and risk normalizing his terrible behavior.” The answer to such a bind that the Times was able to offer was little more than a hope that Americans will tire of Trump’s strategy of outrage. But those attentive to our scriptures will, I hope, find a better way to address Trump and all the rebellious powers of which he is only a servant.
This better way begins with Amos’s call to “be silent.” It is a call to those in power, those who are cheating the poor and exploiting the oppressed, to hear what they are doing. If they do not become silent and face the reality of their abuse of the poor, then God will become silent—withdrawing God’s life sustaining word:
The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord…
they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
but they shall not find it.
The problem of the people of God to which Amos proclaims his oracle is that they haven’t been silent, they haven’t been listening for the word of God. They’ve rushed through their religious obligations, their sabbaths and festivals, so that they can get back to the business of avarice and power, back to the business of exploitation. To exercise that business they’ve made a lot noise, stirred the pot of 24/7 news, sent a great many tweets—all to the end of creating a reailty that serves the powerful rather than the sabbath reality of rest and repentance initiated by God.
These powerful and mendacious people find representation in Psalm 51 in the figure of a tyrant who, again, makes a lot of noise filled with hate and lies. The answer to such a demagogue presented in our scriptures is not simply to denounce him, which the psalmist does, but also to redirect our attention to the true ruler of all. The psalmist, like an olive tree in the temple, places himself as a living fixture in God’s presence, trusting in God’s mercy. By so doing, he is protected from becoming like the tyrant through engaging in the tyrant’s tactics. Instead, he diffuses the tyrant by showing him to be nothing more than a fool who put his trust in wealth and wickedness. The psalmist, rather than being simply outraged, redirects his attention from what is worthless to what is truly worthwhile—God whose mercy is everlasting and to whom all thanks and praise belong.
It is this same God who created all things “in heaven and on earth” including “dominions or rulers or powers” through Christ and for Christ, as our reading in Colossians puts it. All pretenders to power and greatness aside from Christ are then in rebellion. And while it is worthwhile to confront such rebellions with their lies, a far greater share of our attention should go to the one who really occupies the throne—Jesus Christ.
It is Mary who shows this way, the better part, to our many distractions. She knows that the only way to find the “hope of glory” and maturity in Christ is to sit with him, to learn from him, to simply be near to him whenever he is around. That is her wisdom. Mary is confident that eventually the dishes will get done and the food will be served, but she recognizes that in that moment there is nothing more important than being with Jesus. And it is the lesson of her example that we must learn when we are tempted into any anxiety, whether it is the daily worries of any life or the anxiety of those of us who care about justice and goodness in an age of Trump—there is nothing more important than simply being with Jesus.
To really be with Jesus in the richness of his presence we have to turn off our phones, shut down the news, log off Twitter, and enter the silence that demagogues can never keep and the stillness the avaricious can never stand. We must be like the psalmist who plants himself in the temple of God and like Mary who places herself at the feet of Jesus. It is there, in a state of prayer, that we will experience the path of the “better part,” a path that will take us beyond the antics of today’s tyrant and toward the one whose authority is everlasting. It is in that silence that all great prophets have been born, all great answers have been found, and all great hopes have begun to be realized.