Sunday 29 January 2017
The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Whenever we look at a passage from the bible, it’s always a good idea to try to figure out what context the passage is in. The words from Micah are well known: What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Chances are that most of us already know that slogan. What does the Lord require of you? But I for one didn’t know much about what the context was. I only knew the one verse: Micah 6:8. We memorized it in Sunday School. We sang it choir anthems. But I had never paid much attention to the verses around it. We just have to go back to beginning of the chapter to find it though, and the context is really quite extraordinary.
The context is a courtroom. In the ancient world, there wasn’t an independent judiciary. Whoever the ruler or official or elder in a particular place was would usually be the one to settle disputes among the people. So the place where justice was done would usually be the court of a king or ruler, not a court set aside just for the law. But if you want to imagine the courtroom of Judge Judy, that will probably do just fine for understanding this passage. This is a civil case with a plaintiff and a defendant.
The Lord God of Israel is involved in this case. Since God is the ruler and king of all, we would probably imagine that God is acting as the judge in this. But if we did, we would be mistaken. God isn’t the judge in this courtroom, God is the plaintiff. And God is bringing a case against his people, Israel. Israel is the defendant.
But then, who is the judge? Who would be competent to stand in judgement over God? God has stepped down from that usual role in order to put a case directly, and so God calls for a replacement judge to settle the matter. Who does God call to be judge? God actually calls a panel of judges. It’s the mountains:
Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains;
let the hills hear your voice!
Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the Lord!
Hear, eternal foundations of the earth!
The Lord has a lawsuit against his people;
with Israel he will argue.
So now we know who all the players are. God is the plaintiff. Israel is the defendant. The ancient mountains of the earth have been called to be the judges. What are the proceedings going to be like?
God stands up to make the accusation:
“My people, what did I ever do to you?
How have I wearied you? Answer me!”
If it were Judge Judy presiding, no doubt God would be scolded for addressing the defendant directly instead of addressing the court. But considering who this plaintiff is, perhaps a little more latitude is in order. God continues:
“I brought you up out of the land of Egypt;
I redeemed you from the house of slavery.
I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.
My people, remember what Moab’s King Balak had planned,
and how Balaam, Beor’s son, answered him!
Remember everything from the Shittim to Gilgal,
that you might learn to recognize the righteous acts of the Lord!”
It’s the recounting of God’s mighty acts of salvation and liberation during the exodus of God’s people. God freed them from slavery in Egypt through Miriam, Aaron, and Moses. While the people of Israel were wandering the wilderness, the King of Moab, named Balak, was afraid that they might displace him. So King Balak went to the most powerful prophet in the land, Balaam, and offered him a great sum of money if he would curse the people of Israel for him. Balak took Balaam to three different hills, and on each hill he built seven altars, and on each altar he sacrificed a bull and a ram. But each time he did this, and asked Balaam to curse Israel for him, God appeared to Balaam and told him that he should not curse Israel, that he must bless Israel instead. And so that is what Balaam did. Much to the dismay of King Balak, Balaam would not accept his bribes and gifts. He would not do what the king commanded, because, Balaam said, he could not say anything other than the wishes of God, and God wished to bless Israel, not curse her.
Later, at Shittim, God raised up a new leader to succeed Moses—Joshua—and commissioned him to lead God’s people conquering in the Promised Land. Gilgal was Joshua’s military base during the attack on Jericho. God is reminding Israel that God has, again and again, taken Israel’s side and fought against the other nations on Israel’s behalf. If God has shown Israel this undue favoritism, then how can God’s claim against Israel possibly now be unjustified?
What it is that God is accusing Israel of is not included in the few verses we read today, but the charges take up most of the rest of the Book of Micah. God accuses Israel of worshipping idols and following other gods, but this is not the greatest of God’s grievances. More than anything else, God is upset that the rich and powerful people have been taking advantage of the poor and the weak. Merchants cheat the people by using heavier weights when they are buying and lighter weights when they are selling. Judges take bribes from the wealthy and rule unfairly against the poor. The rich buy up all of the land so that the peasants no longer have power over the means of production, they have to work for the wealthy for wages, and the wealthy collect all the profits even though they aren’t the ones doing the work. These rich people, often simply called “the wicked,” come to the priests and give great sums so that they will be blessed. They are sure that God is on their side, that they are God’s chosen people. But they are going to be in for a big surprise when judgment comes. God is going to lift up the poor and grind the rich into dust. These are the charges God lays against Israel.
The mountains never get a chance to make their ruling. Faced with God’s charges, Israel decides to confess. They have been unjust to the poor. They have allowed the rich to have all of the power and prestige. They are guilty.
So they do what any shrewd defendant would do: they try to make a plea bargain. What do we have to give to God in order to get these charges dropped? That’s how justice usually works for the rich and powerful, right? They never have to go to jail. They can always make a deal. When Wall Street hot-shots knowingly break the law and steal the retirement investments away from hard working people so that the wealthy can make even more money, they don’t go to jail. All they have to do for their illegal and unjust practices is pay a fine. And the fine isn’t even as much money as they had made on their illegal trades.
That’s the kind of deal Israel tries to make with God. What will it take to make all this go away? Just give us a number. If we sacrificed one thousand rams, would that do it? How about a thousand gallons of fine olive oil? No that’s not enough? All right, I will sacrifice my own first born child. Would that appease you? Would that get these silly charges dropped? It’s right there in Micah 6:7. Israel actually offers to perform child sacrifice in order to get God to drop the case.
But God is too stubborn for that. God will not accept any plea bargain for the crimes of the rich against the poor. God is going to have justice. God is going to make sure that everything is set right. God’s attorney lays it out in Micah 6:8. “God has already told you, human, what is good and what the Lord requires from you.” Like Silentó, Micah says, “You already know what it is.” The defendant should already know what the law is. The defendant should already know what the sentence is going to be. They have already been told what the Lord requires. It’s very simple. Three bullet points:
No. 1: Do justice—stop cheating the poor and using the power that you get from your wealth in order to squeeze even more money out of them. You rich don’t need any more, but the poor are starving. Give them back the land and get rid of all that accumulated wealth that you should have been sharing all along.
No. 2: Love kindness—אַהֲבַת חֶסֶד. We’re not just talking about politeness here. It’s the kind of loving-kindness that God has for God’s people. It’s care, compassion, mercy, charity, the kind of love that will not allow someone to be mistreated or degraded or taken advantage of. It is active kindness.
No. 3: Walk humbly with your God—It is the crime of the rich and powerful to be haughty, to be proud of themselves and their accomplishments. To think that all of the things they have gotten in life are on account of their own brains and hard work. God demands an end to that delusion. When I claim to have accomplishments, I put myself in the place of God. I declare myself to be a god. I should remember that all good things come from God alone. Everything that I think I have is not mine, it belongs to God. I am a steward, an agent, a manager for God’s riches, and I had best be sure that I use them the way that God would want them used. Walk humbly with your God. Walk in the way that God walks, and do it in humility, knowing that all good things come, not from us, but from God.
What does the Lord require of us? We already know what it is. We have already heard it before. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with your God.