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A Righteous Ruler

January 6, 2019


January 6, 2019 (Epiphany of Our Lord)

New Millennium Church, Little Rock, AR


Psalm 72

Of Solomon.
1 Give the king your justice, O God,
   and your righteousness to a king’s son. 
2 May he judge your people with righteousness,
   and your poor with justice. 
3 May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
   and the hills, in righteousness. 
4 May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
   give deliverance to the needy,
   and crush the oppressor. 

5 May he live* while the sun endures,
   and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. 
6 May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
   like showers that water the earth. 
7 In his days may righteousness flourish
   and peace abound, until the moon is no more. 

10 May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
   render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
   bring gifts. 
11 May all kings fall down before him,
   all nations give him service. 

12 For he delivers the needy when they call,
   the poor and those who have no helper. 
13 He has pity on the weak and the needy,
   and saves the lives of the needy. 
14 From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
   and precious is their blood in his sight.


Matthew 2:1-12


2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men* from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising,* and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah* was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
   are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
   who is to shepherd* my people Israel.” ’

7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men* and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising,* until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped,* they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

Radiant Morning Star,
you are both guidance and mystery, 
Visit our rest with disturbing dreams, 
and our journeys with strange companions. 
Grace us with the hospitality 
to open our hearts and homes 
to visitors filled with unfamiliar wisdom 
bearing profound and unusual gifts. Amen.


What makes someone a worthwhile ruler?  People have probably pondered and debated that question for as long as humans have tried to live together.  Today we examine two passages that shine moral light on that question.


The passage from Psalm 72 seems to have been inspired and composed for King Solomon.  Perhaps it was intended to be offered during his coronation ceremony.  


This prayer petitions God to bless the new ruler with attributes that will be needed for the society to be safe, prosperous, and fair.  May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills in righteousness.  May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, and give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor (Ps. 72:2-4).


The prayer recognizes that people suffer and that rulers are morally obligated to be mindful of suffering caused by poverty, infirmity, powerlessness, cruelty and violence.  For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.  He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needyFrom oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight (Ps. 72:12-14).  

This prayer for someone about to assume the mantle of power in a society shows that political power is always held and exercised in a moral universe.  Political power is always held and exercised in ways that produce consequences that matter to how people live, and even whether they will live.  


According to this prayer, how a ruler acts affects whether weak and vulnerable people are protected or left to be preyed on by cruel and vicious people.   


According to this prayer, how a ruler acts concerning people who are needy is a moral issue.  


According to this prayer, how a ruler acts makes a difference on whether oppressors have a green light to inflict harm on those who are weak, needy, poor, and otherwise suffering.  


This prayer shows that there is a lot more to being a ruler than having gained the privilege of holding power over others.  There is a lot more to being a ruler than having a title (president, prime minister, king, emperor, etc.).  There is a lot more to being a ruler than being surrounded by the trappings of power.  According to this prayer, opinion polls and approval ratings from political supporters are not the standards for how rulers should be judged.  


This prayer shows that rulers are ultimately judged on whether the power they hold and exercise produces something called righteousness.  That word means equity, fairness, and justice in a society.  According to this prayer, righteousness – equity, fairness, and justice – matters!


Righteousness matters in a society and world where some people are comfortable, powerful, privileged, and protected and where others are needy, poor, weak, and unable to defend themselves.   


Righteousness matters in a society and world where some people must flee from where they have lived and search for life, work, and acceptance where they can be safe and secure.


Righteousness matters for rulers because righteousness matters for the people they rule.


Righteousness matters for rulers because whether people are safe, free, treated with generosity and compassion, and protected from oppression and oppressors matters to God!   We should pray for rulers to be righteous because righteousness matters to God!


Are our prayers for rulers concerned about righteousness?  Do we care about righteousness enough to declare our concern in public – whether through prayer or otherwise? Do we even consider the poor, needy, weak, defenseless, and oppressed when we are selecting people to serve as rulers?


The Gospel passage (Matthew 2:1-12) is the visit of magi to Jesus during his infancy.  Please notice that the “magi” (from which we get the English word “magic”) were not magicians.  Matthew does not declare that there were three magi. In fact, one early tradition put the number at 12.  Matthew does not say they were kings.  


It is probably more accurate to think of the party that visited Jesus, Mary, and Joseph at Bethlehem as a caravan of astrologers from the area of Persia (Babylon).  They would have been accompanied by servants, supplies, and beasts that transported their supplies and intended gifts for the ruler their star studies inspired them to believe had been born in Palestine.  


A caravan of astrologers from another society would have unquestionably attracted attention when it reached Jerusalem, the seat of King Herod’s authority.  Attention became alarm when Herod learned the magi had come to Jerusalem asking for directions to “the child who has been born king of the Jews” so they could offer present royal gifts (pay homage) to him.  


Herod was practically paranoid about any threat to his title as ruler of the Jewish people.  So he schemed to enlist the magi as his unsuspecting spies to locate the newborn ruler by pretending that he wanted that information so he could also pay homage to him.  


The visit of the magi to Bethlehem shows that rulers matter to people everywhere.  Rulers matter to people in Australia and Arizona.  Rulers matter to people in Gaza and Georgia.  Rulers matter to people in Little Rock and Los Angeles.  Rulers matter to people everywhere.


Herod’s reaction to the magi shows that rulers who are vicious, paranoid, and otherwise oppressive can – and will – recruit others as agents to advance their vicious, paranoid, and oppressive policies and practices.  In the same way that the pharaoh in Exodus tried to recruit Hebrew midwives as agents of infanticide, Herod tried to use the magi as spies to learn where Jesus lived so he could have him murdered.   


Herod is a prime example of an unrighteous ruler.  He was vicious, deceitful, self-absorbed, and ruthless.  Jesus was a poor, defenseless, and harmless infant who lived in Bethlehem with Mary and Joseph, yet Herod wanted to murder him.  


Can you imagine religious leaders endorsing that use of political power?  Does that use of power fit the prayer in Psalm 72 that a ruler will govern with righteousness?  Certainly not!  


Why does this matter?  


It matters because rulers such as Herod are as real today as during the time of Jesus.  


It matters because rulers like Herod always threaten poor, weak, needy, and defenseless people like Jesus.  


It matters because rulers like Herod always are willing to exploit people of honest faith like the magi in order to harm poor, defenseless, weak, and helpless people like Jesus. 


And, it matters because people like Herod always have some religious folks as counselors and cheerleaders.  Herod’s “inner circle” included some religious folks.  Those “religious folks” knew Herod’s character for violence, deceit, and oppression. Yet, they continued to advise Herod.  Yet, they supported Herod.  Yet, they represented Herod.  


 Do we have the wisdom to recognize unrighteous rulers such as Herod in our time and place?  


Do we have the wisdom and sensitivity to the Holy Spirit to hear and heed warnings about rulers such as Herod?  


Are we counselors and cheerleaders for rulers such as Herod, or rulers who act according to righteousness?  


Policies that result in the preventable deaths of immigrant children are not in keeping with righteousness.  


Policies that worsen the plight of people who are poor, weak, needy, and defenseless are not in keeping with righteousness.


Policies that bestow benefits on oppressors such as Herod and inflict burdens on oppressed people such as Jesus are not in keeping with righteousness.  


Finally, these passages show that religious counselors and cheerleaders who say there is no place for righteousness when it comes to ruling societies are wrong!  It is wrong for rulers to act in ways that worsen poverty.  It is wrong for rulers to oppress needy people.  It is wrong for rulers to refuse to protect defenseless and threatened people.  


It is wrong to say that righteousness has nothing to do with how rulers of societies should behave.  Jerry Falwell, Jr., the president of Liberty University, is wrong when he says “it’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving.” 


Contrary to what Falwell and other self-proclaimed “Christian evangelical conservatives” say and think, Scripture teaches that righteousness matters in public policies as well as in interpersonal dealings.  Have they forgotten this passage?  Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people (Proverbs 14:34).  Have Falwell and Co. forgotten that Jesus taught his followers to pray, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10)?  


Righteousness always matters in public policy!  That is why we are to pray for those in authority.  That is why Psalm 72 is part of our Scripture.  That is plainly demonstrated by the contrast between Herod and Jesus.  




©Wendell Griffen, 2019