The Right Stuff
The Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger
“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Familiar words. Perhaps you memorized them (or a version of them) in Sunday School in years past, or perhaps you saw them on the wall of the Library of Congress (they are inscribed there.) Important words. Jimmy Carter, a man known for his religious commitment and his emphasis on human rights, had his swearing-in Bible opened to this text when he became president in January 1977.
It was in the latter part of the eighth century BC that Micah prophesied. He was a young contemporary of Isaiah, Hosea and Amos. He and Isaiah brought God’s message to the people of Judah in the South while Hosea and Amos took it north to Israel.
Like Amos, Micah was a product of the countryside…a farmer…and like farmers throughout the centuries, he had a certain mistrust of city slickers. In his case, he had good reason: it was the city slickers who were fleecing the folks of the countryside that Micah knew as friends and neighbors; it was city slicker judges who took bribes to render unfair judgments; city slicker priests who were immoral and corrupt; city slicker prophets who would prophesy anything you might want in exchange for a few shekels. No wonder Micah thought of the cities as cesspools of sin.
To be sure, he had plenty to complain about concerning the nation’s religious habits. It was bad enough that the prophets and priests were not living up to expectations, but the reason they were not was that the people did not want them to. The only preaching they wanted to hear was “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.” Micah even joked about it: “If a liar and deceiver comes and says `I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,’ he would be just the preacher for this people.”(1) They did not want to be embarrassed by anyone who would have called them to account for their behavior.
It was time for them to hear a word from the Lord. So Micah came to them with a message that was not only valid for his own age, but for every age to come.
Micah begins with phrasing which would have put his audience in mind of a legal proceeding. “Stand up, plead your case.” But this is no ordinary courtroom. The judge is God and Micah is counsel. And before the defendant is called to the stand to hear the charges, an impressive jury is empaneled – the mountains and hills, and “the everlasting foundations of the earth.”
Before the members of the court, Micah, on behalf of God, makes a case concerning the chosen people. The actual charge is implied rather than explicitly stated: Israel has grown tired of God and chosen to go its own way. But why, God asks? Has God let them down? How is that possible? When Israel was enslaved in Egypt, God gave them freedom. When they were without leaders, God gave them Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and others. When their very existence was threatened in Moab by King Balak, God rescued them yet again. When they crossed the River Jordan, from Shittim to Gilgal, God was with them once again, protecting them, leading them. Clearly the evidence to the court shows that whatever the reason for Israel’s failure, it cannot be blamed on God.
Now it is Israel’s turn to address the court. There is no dispute about the crime or the evidence – the accused simply asks, “What must I do to set things right?” But the very phrasing of the possible remedies betrays the fact that the defendant still does not understand. Israel assumes the solution is more ritual – “With what shall I come before the LORD?” The possibilities start modestly with the only offering that might be available to a poor worshiper (bowing down), then move to the more costly sacrifice of a year-old calf, then to the outrageously lavish sacrifices that would be available only to a king (“thousands of rams…rivers of oil”), finally to the forbidden, dark sacrifice of a child, the “firstborn” – the list runs the gamut. What would satisfy God’s wounded dignity?
You can picture Micah standing there and slowly shaking his head. They still did not get it. Ritual had become an end in itself. The whole sacrificial system and worship of the temple had been turned into a kind of national insurance policy: we can sin as we wish, so long as we are up to date with our insurance premiums at the temple. Sow our wild oats for six days, then on the sabbath come in and pray for a crop failure.
No. Micah says there is no mystery as to what God requires, and it has nothing to do with sacrifice and offering and religious STUFF. “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Three elements that constitute the right stuff of religion. Then…and now as well.
“Act justly.” Fair play. It means making sure that all God’s children inherit their fair share of God’s good gifts. And if they don’t, because someone has swindled them out of their birthright or because they were not strong enough to hold on to it, justice means doing whatever is necessary to sort out what belongs to whom and return it to them.(2) “Act justly.”
“Love mercy.” The Hebrew term rendered here as mercy, chesed, is difficult to translate with any single English word. It is a relationship word. It has the connotation of “getting inside someone’s skin.” Just as we might say “look at it through my eyes,” or “put yourself in my shoes,” the feeling is one of a changed perspective. To the Hebrews it would have been a special word because it is one of the principal attributes of God in the Old Testament. As God always acted toward the people in mercy, so too God expected them to act in the same way toward one another. If God’s people are to be just, they are to be even more – they are to give where no giving is deserved, to act when no action is required. It is not only an activity, it is an attitude. Chesed. Mercy.
But one can be just without being religious. One can be merciful without any spiritual inclination. That is why Micah says one thing more is needed: a humble walk with God.
It is the daily walk with God that energizes the commitment to act justly and go even beyond to treat people (even the undeserving) with mercy. “Walking humbly with God is a call to do more than to come to God with offerings thinking to buy God’s favor, but to spend the time walking, living life, with God in ways that would work out in every aspect of life. It implies a sensitivity to the things of God, a concern…to allow our heart to be broken by the things that break the heart of God. It is a deep desire to see the world through the eyes of God, to act in the world as God would act.”(3)
|A SERMONWRITER SUBSCRIBER SAYS:
“I am fond of referring to myself as a “dumb old country boy,” but with your help I can portray the opposite image when I preach and lead worship.”
We make discipleship complicated. We have creeds, doctrines, liturgies, rituals, observances, pipe organs, stained glass, and all topped off with committee meetings. Heaps of stuff, which is fine, if it is usable, if it helps. Otherwise, it is STUFF that can obscure our vision of God and our suffering neighbors.(4)
Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God, the God who nourishes us for the journey. For people of faith, the right stuff.
1. Micah 2:11
2. Barbara Brown Taylor, Bible lecture via Internet at the meeting of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, Hartford, Connecticut, June 27, 1999, http://www.naccc.org/hartfor/features/bible_3.html
3. Dennis Bratcher, via Internet, copyright © 2000 Christian Resource Institute, http://www.cresourcei.org/lectionary/YearA/Aepiphany4ot.html
4. “The Stuffless Soul,” Homiletics, January/February, 2002, p. 43
Copyright 2002, Dr. David E. Leininger. Used by permission.