Listen to what the Lord says:
“Stand up, plead my case before the mountains;
let the hills hear what you have to say.
“Hear, you mountains, the Lord’s accusation;
listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth.
For the Lord has a case against his people;
he is lodging a charge against Israel.
“My people, what have I done to you?
How have I burdened you? Answer me.
I brought you up out of Egypt
and redeemed you from the land of slavery.
I sent Moses to lead you,
also Aaron and Miriam.
My people, remember
what Balak king of Moab plotted
and what Balaam son of Beor answered.
Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.”
With what shall I come before the Lord
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, 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. (New International Version)
We are the people of God, the Church, the Body of Christ, the army of God, a holy temple. Those biblical labels are a picture of who we are and what we are to do. These metaphors all describe a people set apart for service, working in concert together toward a shared purpose.
In the prophet Micah’s day, the Israelites lost sight of the purpose and meaning of being God’s people. They needed to remember that the Lord acts in and through them for the redemption of the world. The kind of sacrifice and service which God wants is not so much a largess of tangible offerings we give. Rather, it is neatly summarized this way: Act justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.
This Old Testament passage has the feel of a courtroom scene. The defense lawyer is Micah, representing God. The people of Israel are the plaintiffs. The world is the judge. All of creation is the jury.
Israel was complaining about God. It’s an age old complaint from many people through the millennia: Blame God for anything that goes sideways in my life. The reasoning goes something like this: After all, God is powerful and in control. God should fix everything.
In their small-minded and short-sighted ways, the people seem unable to discern that easy fixes rarely help anyone. Like yanking up a big weed next to a small plant, it destroys both of them.
The defendant, Micah, speaks on behalf of God. What have I done to you? How have I burdened you? In fact, God has done just the opposite of failing to act or wronging the people in some way. The Lord actively delivered the Israelites:
- When the people groaned and grumbled under Egyptian slavery, God delivered them with a series of miraculous deeds.
- When the Israelites were heading to the Promised Land and vulnerable to their enemies, God protected them from the Moabites. The Lord even used a talking donkey to work on their behalf. God miraculously turned the efforts of Balak to curse the people into a blessing.
- When the people entered the land, they did so by the powerful act of God to stop the Jordan River from flowing so the Israelites could cross over.
These saving acts of God are the motivation for living a life pleasing to God. Micah sarcastically pressed his argument, essentially asking if there’s anything that can be done to keep the people happy? What extremes need to happen to meet such excessive demands? The response by God is this: Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with God.
Walk Humbly with God
Faith and action are meant to work seamlessly together. Doing justice and loving mercy are possible as we walk with God. Walking everyday with Jesus gives us the power and passion to invest in the healing of the world. God desires that we journey with Jesus and follow his words and ways. Throughout the New Testament, the Christian life is described as a road or a way we walk. In fact, the earliest believers were known as “The Way.” (Acts 9:1-19)
Jesus is the way (John 14:6). Jesus is the way to deal with our current concerns and anticipated anxieties. He himself is the way. The way is not through a program of self-improvement. The way is not through a fake-it-till-you-make-it approach. The way is not through an ability to articulate well-crafted words or through being able to answer with certainty every question of faith. The way is not through finding just the right plan or system.
Jesus is our way – he is the way of rescue, the road to a life of harmonious peace and settled rest even when the world is going to hell around us. Jesus is the way for the church everywhere – fellowship, encouragement, acts of loving service, teaching, and strengthening of faith all center around Jesus because he is love incarnate.
Jesus is the way for the world – serving neighbors and nations, advocating for those who are mistreated and facing injustice, tackling the dozens of world problems which oppress humanity – come through the continuing presence of Jesus here on this earth, that is, through the Holy Spirit and God’s people.
This phrase (in the NIV) is translated various ways in other Bible versions:
- “Embrace faithful love” (CEB)
- “Let mercy be your first concern” (CEV)
- “Show constant love” (GNT)
- “Be compassionate and loyal in your love” (MSG)
- “Love being kind to others” (NCV)
- “Love kindness” (NRSV).
The reason for the variations is that the phrase in Hebrew carries a lot of meaning – and it’s difficult to capture that meaning in just one or two English words. It has to do with God’s steadfast loyalty to people based in a committed love and determination to do what is good and kind on their behalf – no matter whether they deserve such a grace, or not.
To love mercy comes from a large heart. The Grinch had a small heart. It caused him to be a nasty green curmudgeon who could steal gifts from a sweet little Who-girl. Only when his heart was enlarged did he mercifully return the gifts and then participate with the Whoville folks in their grand celebration.
God was merciful! We were dead because of our sins, but God loved us so much that he made us alive with Christ, and God’s wonderful kindness is what saves you. (Ephesians 2:4-5, CEV)
Because many people define justice as a punitive act toward a wrongdoer, they struggle with this admonition to “do justice.” Giving people what they deserve doesn’t primarily mean someone is supposed to go to prison. Some people deserve that. Most don’t.
Instead, to act justly means to create a world in which everyone has what they need to live, thrive, and develop the gifts God has placed within them. Everyone deserves their basic human needs met – to have an equal opportunity in realizing the meeting of their needs. And that is what the heart of biblical justice is. Therefore, justice includes practical things like:
- Providing tutors so that kids in urban schools have the same opportunities to read and as suburban kids.
- Supporting an overwhelmed single parent who is struggling to find the time and resources to give adequate time to his or her children.
- Taking in a foster child who needs the environment of a loving family.
- Employing a person coming out of prison so that the terrible rates of recidivism don’t keep going.
- Advocating for an underprivileged person who needs adequate healthcare or good housing.
Doing justice is more than giving away money or resources. It’s helping people to help themselves. It’s providing others the dignity and respect of putting them in a position so that they can take pride in their own efforts, just like we do. It’s not only giving someone a fish but taking the time and effort in teaching them how to fish.
Speak up for people who cannot speak for themselves. Help people who are in trouble. Stand up for what you know is right and judge all people fairly. Protect the rights of the poor and those who need help. (Proverbs 31:8-9, ERV)
What does the Lord require or desire of you?
What gifts and abilities has God given to you to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly?
How can you and I step outside our comfort zones to other areas the Lord might be desiring for us?
The answers to those questions will determine whether we sink or swim as the people of God.
Father God, you have made all people in your image. It’s your desire and requirement that they be gathered together as one family in yourself. Fill the hearts of humanity with the fire of your love and the desire to ensure justice for all. By sharing the good things, you give us, may we secure equality for all our brothers and sisters throughout the world. May there be a truly human society built on love and peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.