What Does the Lord Require?
Dr. Philip W. McLarty
The last two Sundays we’ve heard a couple of lesser known stories of the Old Testament. Today we’ll hear about one of the lesser known prophets, the prophet Micah.
He’s referred to in the Bible as one of the Minor Prophets. That’s because the Book of Micah is relatively short, as compared to, say, Isaiah and Jeremiah. But, as we’ll see, he’s anything but minor league when it comes to proclaiming God’s Word. He’s a force to be reckoned with.
So, what do we know about the prophet Micah? For one thing, he lived in the little rural village of Moresheth, about twenty-five miles southwest of Jerusalem, not far from what we now call the Gaza Strip. He lived in the mid-to-early 8th century B.C. He was a contemporary of Isaiah, Amos and Hosea.
He may have even studied under Isaiah. He was certainly familiar with Isaiah’s prophecy. But, while Isaiah lived in the city of Jerusalem in the thick of politics and religion, Micah was a man of humble origins, who lived close to the people and to the soil. Commentator Bernhard Anderson says of Micah:
“Unlike the city-bred Isaiah, Micah was a country prophet who spoke for poor farmers suffering at the hands of powerful landlords.” (Understanding the Old Testament, p. 304)
No wonder, then, we find him championing the cause of the poor and powerless and wagging his finger at the wealthy saying,
“…my people have risen up as an enemy. You strip the robe and clothing from those who pass by without a care…You drive the women of my people out from their pleasant houses;
from their young children you take away my blessing forever.” (Micah 2:8-9)
Micah exposed the corruption of business leaders, who exploited the weak for personal gain. He says,
“Shall I be pure with dishonest scales, and with a bag of deceitful weights? Her rich men are full of violence, her inhabitants speak lies, and their tongue is deceitful in their speech.” (Micah 6:11-12)
As much as anything, Micah condemns the priests and prophets for being in it only for the money. He says,
“Her leaders judge for bribes, and her priests teach for a price, and her prophets of it tell fortunes for money: yet they lean on Yahweh, and say, ‘Isn’t Yahweh in the midst of us? No disaster will come on us.'” (Micah 3:11)
But he reserves his most scathing criticism for the hollow religious practices of his day. One commentator writes,
“The people were religious, but theirs was an empty ceremonialism.” Another says, “Religion had become a matter of form; ceremonial observances were thought to meet all religious requirements. The people believed as long as they performed the external acts of worship they were entitled to the divine favor and protection.” And yet another adds, “The people replaced heartfelt worship with empty ritual, thinking that this is all God demands.” (Al Maxey at http://www.zianet.com/maxey/Proph11.htm)
All this leads Micah to prophesy:
“How shall I come before Yahweh, and bow myself before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will Yahweh be pleased with thousands of rams?
With tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my disobedience? The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O man, what is good. What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8)
Let’s take his prescription one pill at a time. What does it mean to do justice?
When I was in music school, student recitals were a big deal. We’d listen to other students perform a work – usually, one movement of a sonata – and, when it came our turn, we’d play a piece we’d been working on. When we weren’t on stage, we’d sit in the audience and critique those who were, often unmercifully. We’d say things like, “The intonation stunk … where were the dynamics?” But the worst criticism came in the form of a summary statement: “He/she didn’t do justice to that piece.” It was a kiss of death.
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When I hear Micah’s call for justice, I go back to my days at LSU and think: To do justice is to do things right. It’s to think and act nobly. It’s to live up to the highest standards of conduct, and that includes fairness and reciprocity: “Whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them.” (Matthew 7:12) And, if that’s the case, justice is slipping away in our world today. Let me give you an example:
One of the first rules of economics is the law of supply and demand. If a lot of people want what you’ve got, and you’ve only got a limited supply, the price goes up.
So far, so good. But when greed steps in and the supply is manipulated to serve the interests of the producer, it leads to injustice. For example, according to CNNMoney.com, Exxon-Mobil posted an $11.66 billion dollar profit for the fourth quarter of 2007. That topped a previous record-setting quarter in 2005 of $10.7 billion. To put it in perspective, Exxon’s profits in 2007 came in at a rate of $1,300 per second.
Of course, it’s all quite legal and above board. Nobody’s cooking the books or extorting anyone at gun point. It’s just business.
But is it just business? That’s the question. Does Exxon-Mobil really need this much money to compete in the marketplace, or are they taking advantage of favorable laws and economic conditions to gouge the consumer? And, lest we pick on Exxon-Mobil, how many other companies are there in the world today who are also getting rich off the backs of the poor?
I once had a family in my congregation who owned a conglomerate of companies. They were into ranching, timber, banking, oil production – you name it. I dropped by their office one day and asked one of the managers, “So, what exactly do you do here?” He said, “We make money – as much and as fast as we can.” Hmpf.
The Law of Moses knew all about the reality of human greed. And so, it required landowners not to harvest their crops up to the very edge of the fields or to glean the fields of every last kernel of wheat. In this way, peasants could come behind the gleaners and collect the spoils and so, have enough to feed their families. (Exodus 19:9-10)
For Micah, God’s word is clear: There’s more to life than making money. God calls us to make a difference. And to make a difference requires that we do justice. And to do justice is to serve the common good. Make a profit, yes. Just don’t get greedy. Take only what you need, not what you can get by with. Act in the best interest of all concerned. And always remember: When you take more than your share, somebody may have to do without.
The second part of Micah’s prescription is to love kindness, and, when I think of kindness, I think of the bumper sticker on one of my church member’s car. It said, “Practice Random Acts of Kindness.” In other words, do nice things for others spontaneously – especially those you don’t know – and, if possible, do it anonymously with no thought of recognition or reward.
One of my favorite television commercials here lately is an ad that shows someone reaching out to keep a pedestrian from stepping in front of an oncoming car. Another bystander notices and, as she walks down the sidewalk, lends a helping hand to a total stranger. Yet another bystander notices and does something nice for someone else. The chain reaction continues until one act of kindness leads to another, and to another, and another.
What’s funny is that I can’t even tell you who sponsors the ad or the product they’re selling. It’s as if the ad itself is a random act of kindness, and that, to me, makes it all the more compelling to watch.
In Elementary Church Camp years ago we used to play a game called, “Secret Friends.” When the children first arrived, we’d put their names on slips of paper and have them pick one from the hat. The person whose name they drew was to be their secret friend for the week. The idea was that, throughout the week, they were to do nice things for their secret friends without getting caught. For example, a kid would go to breakfast and find a little gift by her plate. Or he’d go back to his room and find that somebody had made his bed. All week long the kids would sneak around doing nice things for each other incognito. Then, at our closing worship service, we’d let the children tell each other who their secret friend was.
It was a lot of fun, and it always made me come home thinking what a nicer world this would be if we were to practice being secret friends indiscriminately … all over the world … all the time.
So, let’s see … we’re to do justice, love kindness and – the third ingredient – we’re to walk humbly with God.
In our World Religions class, we learned that the Jewish faith is the first of the major religions to think of God as a person with qualities you can relate to. For example, Genesis 3:8 and 9:
“Yahweh God walking in the garden in the cool of the day… called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?'” (Genesis 3:8-9)
While this may sound familiar to our ears, in the development of religious thinking, it was revolutionary. The gods of other faiths were vague and abstract; the God of the Hebrews was concrete and personal – and, yes – anthropomorphic – man-like. God interacted with his chosen people directly. He spoke to them. He heard their cries. He promised repeatedly, “I will be with you.” (e.g., Isaiah 43:2)
This is the type of God Micah had in mind when he said that we ought to walk humbly with God. Our God is a God we can relate to as friend to friend.
But to walk humbly with God is also to remember our place and to know that we stand with God, not as equals, but as invited guests; never forgetting for a moment that God is Creator, and we are but part of God’s creation.
In her book, Living With Contradiction, Esther de Waal points out that humility comes from the word, humus, a word that’s sometimes used to describe compost. So that to walk humbly with God is to remember, with every step you take, that you are of the earth – mortal, not divine. Ironically, knowing that makes you appreciate all the more what an honor it is to walk with God.
Here’s the sum of it all: Micah asks, “What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly,
to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” That, in a nutshell, is the essence of a life of faith.
I don’t know anyone who came closer to doing just that than Bill and Betty Allison. The Allisons ran a little mom and pop grocery store in downtown Quinlan, Texas. They catered mostly to folks who couldn’t drive to the big supermarkets in Greenville or Terrill. More than once I saw Bill or Betty ring up a couple of sacks of groceries and put them on a tab to be paid for later … or not at all. It was clear to me: A lot of their credit would get rung up as charity, though they had the grace not to call it that.
Among other things, Bill was Chief of the volunteer fire department. When a call came in, he’d drop what he was doing, sound the alarm and bolt out the back door for the fire station behind the store. He risked his life saving others and their property.
He was also the go-to man for the entire community. I picked up on this right away. The folks in Quinlan had a saying when something broke or when things went wrong – they’d look at each other and say, “Just call Bill.” He could fix just about anything, and he always did so with a smile and a kind word … and for free.
Oddly, the Allisons weren’t church-going people, and I respected that. But don’t tell me they weren’t God-fearing people because, in their quiet, unpretentious way they did more good for more people for the right reason than the rest of us combined. They expressed their faith not in words, but in deeds of loving kindness.
They were just, kind and humble. May the same be said of you and me.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2008, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.