WHOM DO YOU TRUST?
Matthew 6:21, 24
“How long?” is a question with a long history. The desire for judgment, often escalating into a demand, is deeply imbedded in the life of God’s praying people.
How long, O Lord? Wilt thou forget me for ever? How long wilt thou hide thy face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (Ps. 13:1-2)
Hurt people want relief, the bullied want fairness, the pushed around want dignity. The question prayed by the slaughtered souls under the altar “O sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?” asks how long is it to be permitted that righteousness is wantonly violated by mindless and godless schemers? How long do we have to put up with might-is-right arrogance?
We don’t have to wait around for a war, or go to the ghetto, or get caught in a pogrom, to find injustice. In the daily places of love and work we come up against it. The world is not a good place for justice. We learn this early. Children, with instinctive moral sense, ignorantly but accurately paraphrase scripture, “It’s not fair.”
It is notable that John’s pastoral method here does not involve comforting words. He doesn’t smooth things over, reminding us that it could be much worse. On the contrary, he intensifies whatever sense of injustice we already have. In answer to the cry “How long?” martyred souls are told to wait a little longer “until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.” But surely this has gone on long enough? Surely, after all these centuries it is time to call a halt to the whole rotten business, call the perpetrators of these cruelties on the carpet and wipe the condescending smiles off their faces with a once-for-all judgment?
It is disconcerting that there is no biblically straight answer to the straight question, “How long?” There is an unshakable conviction that God will bring an end to injustice, even though he shows no signs of calling the court room to order. Judgment appropriate to the deed and meted out on the spot is rare, biblically: Annanias and Sapphira, Judas, Herod; that’s about it.
So what accounts for the incredible persistence of the cry? John, an exiled pastor with responsibility for seven congregations of Christians subject to a barrage of violence and propaganda from without and infiltrated within by cunningly attractive lies, can think of nothing better than to call them to worship.
Before the seven angels, their bowls filled with God’s wrath, leave to pour out their judgments the saints of heaven sing, “the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb.” When we see the consequences of their emptied bowls, we realize that we have seen this before in the ten plagues on Egypt. This clear link with Egypt reinforces John’s emphasis on worship, for we recall that the ten plagues were not visited on the Egyptians because they were an extraordinarily evil people, but for a single reason which had no apparent moral content to it at all: they were determined to prevent Israel from worshiping God.
Moses’ task was to shape a worshiping people before the Lord. The negotiations between Moses and Pharaoh had a single theme: worship. Moses’ opening petition from God to Pharaoh was, “Let my people go, that they may hold a feast to me ... let us go, we pray, a three days’ journey into the wilderness, and sacrifice to the Lord our God.” Each renewal of his petition repeated the reason, “Let my people go that they may worship me.”
Pharaoh’s sin was that he prevented Israel from worshiping God. The judgment plagues are visited over this issue, and this issue alone. The greatest evil that people of faith face from outside is the obstruction of worship. The greatest evil that they face from inside is the subversion of worship. This is what we have most to fear. This is what John gives continuous attention to. And it is on this evil that the judgments are visited.
The judgment theme is completed in the portrayal of the “great whore.” We know that God’s judgment came upon Pharaoh because he obstructed Israel’s worship. We realize that the Great Whore, the Scarlet Woman, is judged under the same indictment. The Beasts of Revelation, and the Scarlet Woman, are any power system that gives itself a status that is due only to God. The main characteristic of these entities is that each claims the allegiance that only God can command.
Whore is a sexual term. But in Revelation 17-18, the Great Whore image, the Scarlet Woman, is not about sex, it is a metaphor for worship gone wrong. John has nothing to say about the sexual conditions in the late first century; his business is with the conditions of faith. His pastoral responsibility is to prevent his Christians from quitting the enduringly arduous life of worship in favor of something which appears just as religious, looks a lot better, and is a lot easier. He tells them about the Scarlet Woman to open their eyes to the differences between the worship of the Lamb and this other worship, which is not worship at all, but keeps us from worship.
The great danger of worship under the Scarlet Woman is not in its gross evils, but its easy religion. The promise of success, ecstasy, and meaning that we can get for a price is harlot-worship. It is the diabolical inversion of “you are bought with a price” to “I can get it for you wholesale.”
Scarlet-worship is a matter of moments and occasion; Bride-worship gathers every part of life into union. Scarlet-worship is practiced on the principle of attraction and pleasure; Bride-worship is for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part. Scarlet-worship is indulgent and lusty getting; Bride-worship is sacrificed and faithful giving. Scarlet-worship brings us great gain: we get what we want when we want it; Bride-worship is an offering: we give ourselves and don’t know how long we will wait for fulfillment.
Throughout Revelation, the great scenes of worship show God being served – the people come to him, giving themselves in praise. At no place does he entice them with easy promises. In the great lament of Revelation 17 over the Scarlet Woman’s demise, the longest and most detailed lament is from the merchants and sea traders: who they got everything they wanted, their lives overflowed with things, and now it is gone, wasted, up in smoke. They are bereft of everything they were promised and invested in and enjoyed. It is not their businesses that have collapsed, but their religion, a religion of self-indulgence, of getting. Now it is gone: salvation-by-checkbook is gone, god-on-demand is gone, meaning-by-money is gone, religion-as-feeling is gone. They are left with nothing but themselves, of whom after a lifetime in the whorehouse, they know nothing.
There are three figurative women in Revelation. The first we have already met, the woman clothed with the sun. She is Mary, and in a larger sense, the people of God, and she is kept safe by the power of God. The second, the harlot Babylon, the Scarlet Woman, is the devil’s counterpart to the others. The third is the bride of Christ.
The first two women in Revelation are portrayed in sharply contrasting ways in order to win the readers’ allegiance to the persecuted woman, who represents the people of God, and to alienate them from the repulsive harlot, who represents the adversaries of God. The woman clothed with the sun is the mother of the Messiah and the faithful, while the courtesan clothed with scarlet is “the mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.” The first woman is pursued by a seven-headed monster, while the second woman happily rides a seven-headed monster and drinks the blood of the saints.
In practical terms, the message is that Christians may find themselves in difficult straits, like the woman who flees to the wilderness, outside the social mainstream; but if the other option is to cozy up with a debauched prostitute and her pet beast, readers might find that life outside the social mainstream is not so bad.
John did not make such sharp contrasts because the distinction between good and evil was obvious to his readers. For many, the problem was precisely the opposite. John challenges those who seem unable to discern the difference between the true God and surrogate gods, or to distinguish faithfulness from unfaithfulness. Christians at Sardis and Laodicea had been lulled into complacency by their wealth, while those at Pergamum and Thyatira seemed willing to accommodate the harlotry of pagan practices in the interest of social harmony. The portrayal of the harlot is designed to unmask the seductive powers that dull the readers’ perceptions, startling them into a keener awareness of what faith means.