Leading Is Serving (Micah 3:1-4)

Then I said:

“Listen, leaders of Jacob, leaders of Israel:
    Don’t you know anything of justice?
Haters of good, lovers of evil:
    Isn’t justice in your job description?
But you skin my people alive.
    You rip the meat off their bones.
You break up the bones, chop the meat,
    and throw it in a pot for cannibal stew.”

The time’s coming, though, when these same leaders
    will cry out for help to God, but he won’t listen.
He’ll turn his face the other way
    because of their history of evil. (The Message)

The prophet Micah wasn’t speaking to the general population; he was specifically addressing leaders. Those in authority – whether religious, political, educational, or corporate – can be sometimes rather hard on the people they lead. Yet, most things rise or fall because of leadership, and not because of the people being led.

It’s one thing to be a Pastor and preach an angry sermon; a politician who spins the truth for their own advantage; a teacher who one day berates the students; or a boss who uncharitably chastises an employee; and it’s quite another thing for these behaviors to be habitual. A daily dose of leaders who view people as dumb sheep to fleece are eventually in for big trouble… from God!

Most leaders ascended to their position because they know what’s up and how to go about their business. They know the difference between right and wrong. But instead of viewing themselves as servants to the people, some leaders believe the people ought to be serving them. This sort of attitude comes out in snarky phrases, such as:

  • “If these idiots would only listen to me, and do what I tell them, we wouldn’t be in this mess!”
  • “How many times do I have to repeat myself!?”
  • “Excuses, excuses. That’s all I hear. They’re nothing but a bunch of lazy ungrateful people!”
  • “Leave your problems at home where they belong. We don’t talk about that stuff here!”
  • “What makes you think you can talk to me that way!?”
  • “It’s out of my hands. Not my responsibility.”
  • “It wasn’t like this in my generation. These young people just don’t want to do anything that’s hard. Back in my day I had to….”

The real problem, however, are the leaders themselves; they haven’t gotten out their own way to let the justice of God flow powerfully in them and through them to the benefit of everyone.

Having a leader who is attentive to basic human kindness, generous with words, and concerned for all under their authority is like a kiss on the lips. But a leader who only thinks of themselves is like a bad dream that won’t go away.

A society cannot survive without justice, that is, a concern for the common good of all persons – and coupled with systemic practices which reinforce that basic conviction. Some leaders have good hearts but bad organizational systems. Other leaders administrate well but have a hard time relating to people. We need both for justice to occur.

Once leaders get in a groove of justice, society flourishes. Yet, leaders need to be continually vigilant; their leadership can easily devolve into struggles to obtain and maintain power so that they can feel important and in control of things.

The Old Testament prophets, like Micah, used imaginative metaphors to make their case that injustice needed to be done away with. And they nearly always laid the burden of change on leaders. Leadership is meant to make things right, not wrong, and to help a group of people become better, not worse.

Justice is in every leader’s job description. It’s written on both the conscience and the heart in permanent marker.

When things go sideways, godly leaders first look at themselves, rather than reflexively blaming others. Typically, there is plenty of guilt to go around; yet the leader needs to bear the onus of the problem and begin addressing it by first looking within themselves.

It’s a leader’s responsibility to ensure that justice and freedom are established – and that there are no obstacles to all the people living successfully. Leaders are to be learners so that they may do good and create systems of good for everyone.

Stop doing wrong
    and learn to live right.
See that justice is done.
Defend widows and orphans
    and help the oppressed. (Isaiah 1:16-17, CEV)

Those who held authority in Micah’s day had gotten drunk on power and privilege; they openly used their authority to consume the poor and needy. Rather than empowering the underprivileged, the leaders snatched what little autonomy and resources the people possessed.

The good news is that there is a greater power operative in the universe than earthly leaders. A hard life caused by insensitive leadership will eventually give way to the Lord’s gracious and benevolent reign over all the earth.

Until that time comes, we are to grow as leaders by seeking to be true and genuine servants.

Politicians are to pursue public service without prejudice and with a keen eye toward all classes of people;

Educators are to commit themselves to ensuring that learning happens with a variety of approaches, all pillowed with loving support;

Employers are to provide whatever is needed to make their employees successful at their jobs, including a safe and caring environment;

Religious leaders are to offer spiritual care and not spiritual judgment to all within their bounds of responsibility.

We all lead other people, whether or not we have the title or position as a leader. Therefore, we all must seek not to be served but to serve others. This is the way of justice and righteousness.

Gracious God and Leader of all: Help us to embrace the challenge and responsibility we have as leaders
to guide us to lead with integrity and common sense. Give us the wisdom to make intelligent decisions; the courage to make tough decisions; and the character to make right decisions. Embolden us to always be welcoming, inclusive, and open because of our Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Remember the Poor and Needy (Deuteronomy 24:17-25:4)

Harvest in Provence by Vincent Van Gogh, 1888

Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.

When you are harvesting in your field and you overlook a sheaf, do not go back to get it. Leave it for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. When you harvest the grapes in your vineyard, do not go over the vines again. Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt. That is why I command you to do this.

When people have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty. If the guilty person deserves to be beaten, the judge shall make them lie down and have them flogged in his presence with the number of lashes the crime deserves, but the judge must not impose more than forty lashes. If the guilty party is flogged more than that, your fellow Israelite will be degraded in your eyes.

Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain. (New International Version)

In an ideal world, we would all use our common inner sense of justice, fairness, and kindness; we would pay attention to our conscience. Yet, as you and I know all too well, we are far from living in an idyllic setting.

Instead, we live in a fundamentally broken world – complete with injustice, disagreements, disputes, petty squabbles, and blatant insensitivity to others.

It seems we shouldn’t have to be told how to concern ourselves for the common good of all persons; yet that’s exactly what needs to happen. So, the Lord made it plain what the expectations are for meeting societal needs. And it’s already inside of us; we just need to recognize it’s there, tap into it, and obey our better angels.

The Lord expects:

  • No favoritism, cronyism, and isolationism. Immigrants, foreigners, and folks different from us are to be treated with equal justice and sensitivity. Cliques which are hawkish about keeping certain persons out of their group is mostly selfish and sometimes mean-spirited; and it’s always a sort of discrimination which God expects us to avoid.
  • Attention to the poor among us. In the ancient world, and still is some parts of our world today, when the crops are harvested, the needy would tag behind the harvesters in order to pick up what was left behind. Basic human kindness tells us that not only do we let them do this, but we also purposely leave a bit for them to get for themselves and their families. In our modern era, practices of exorbitant interest and unfair housing need to be replaced with concern for the less fortunate. Wealth is meant to be shared, not hoarded. To not do so is to steal from the poor.
  • Punishments which fit the crime. Inequitable societies are rife with kangaroo courts and unjust laws which favor a particular group of persons. It’s humiliating for a minority prisoner to serve a much longer sentence than a person who is in the majority of society… and we wonder why some folks are so angry sometimes. Good grief.
  • Inclusion. Concern for the common good of society doesn’t exclude folks we don’t like or don’t understand. The reason we are not to “muzzle an ox while its treading out the grain” is that they’re doing a job and they don’t need any hindrances to their work. Placing restrictions or extra rules on one group over another just because of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, or class is sinfully exclusionary.

The bottom line is that God cares about persons trapped in poverty. 

In the Old Testament, there are seven different words for the “poor.” The range of meanings includes those who are poor because of laziness, those born into poverty, those who are poor because of inhuman oppression or slavery, simple beggars, and the pious humble poor – who have no choice but to put their trust in God because of their grinding poverty.

The Law was quite clear about how to treat the poor:

Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” (Deuteronomy 15:11, NRSV) 

The mistreatment, exploitation, and just plain inattention to the poor and needy were a chief reason God sent the prophets to Israel: 

Listen to me, you who walk on helpless people,
    you who are trying to destroy the poor people of this country, saying,
“When will the New Moon festival be over
    so we can sell grain?
When will the Sabbath be over
    so we can bring out wheat to sell?
We can charge them more
    and give them less,
    and we can change the scales to cheat the people.

We will buy poor people for silver,
    and needy people for the price of a pair of sandals.
    We will even sell the wheat that was swept up from the floor.”

The Lord has sworn by his name, the Pride of Jacob, “I will never forget everything that these people did. (Amos 8:4-7, NCV) 

The major theme of Deuteronomy is remembering. Don’t ever forget where you came from so that the memory of your past helps shape what kind of person you are in the present.

We must be reminded that it is the poor in spirit who enter the kingdom of heaven, not the proud spirit who forgets the poor. 

The humble person offers grace to people who cannot offer her something in return. It’s one thing to be merciful to people who will turn around later and scratch our backs. But it’s an altogether different thing to show mercy, regardless of whether they can pay you back. 

We are to speak and act with mercy to all persons, without prejudice. 

Eventually, an idyllic world will come. Until that time, we are to speed its coming by showing basic human kindness and compassion to the least among us.

Lord God, you give honor to the least, those who are forgotten, overlooked and misjudged. You came to give first place to the last, those left behind, misunderstood and undervalued. You came to give a warm welcome to the lost, those who are orphaned, abandoned and destitute. Help us to be your ears to listen to their cries; your voice speaking out love and acceptance; your feet walking beside those in need; and your hands to clothe, feed and shelter them. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.

Obey with Integrity and Love (Psalm 15)

God, who gets invited
    to dinner at your place?
How do we get on your guest list?

 “Walk straight,
    act right,
        tell the truth.

“Don’t hurt your friend,
    don’t blame your neighbor;
        despise the despicable.

“Keep your word even when it costs you,
    make an honest living,
        never take a bribe.

“You’ll never get
blacklisted
if you live like this.” (The Message)

Nearly all of us had to work hard to get good grades in school. Each schoolyear began with a blank slate; then, what we did with learning the lessons determined the grade.

So, it’s unthinkable for many of us to consider that we all begin God’s school with A’s. We’re all 4.0 students. There’s only a lower grade if we neglect to do the things necessary as an A student. And, as it turns out, the most important things are a matter of basic human kindness and respect for others.

At the end-of-the-year banquet, awards are given. If we’ve done what’s expected, then the invitation to come to the front and receive the award is assured.

Yet, if anyone has gone out of their way to be deliberately stupid and ignore what’s right, then they aren’t going to show up at the banquet. They’ll dismiss it as a waste of their time and blabber about how they don’t be around a bunch do-gooder pricks and Abe Lincoln’s, blah-blah-blah.

Integrity, honesty, kindness, accountability, and commitment matter. Virtue shows itself through the practice of obedience.

We might get hung up on obedience for a few reasons:

  1. Many Westerners, especially Americans, have a strong anti-authoritarian strain; obedience smacks them as something negative. For some, they would rather stick-it-to-the-man than obey. Even Christians might sacralize their disobedience by linking obedience to law – as if gospel and obedience are antithetical.
  2. A lot of people have been personally hurt because they tried to do the right thing by obeying their authorities, but it ended badly. Now, they aren’t so sure about the whole obedience thing.
  3. We just plain don’t want anyone else telling us what to do and not do; and that includes not wanting to obey God. So, we focus on the freedom to do what we want, to the exclusion of obedience.

Yet, there’s no way to get around the pervasive reality of obedience to Torah, to Yahweh. Obedience is both the glue which holds a people together, as well as the major means of expressing love to God and others.

Jesus said, “If you love me, obey my commandments.” (John 14:15, NLT)

Love and obedience go together in Holy Scripture like a hand in a glove. Jesus insisted that upholding Torah and loving others is by obedience to divine commands.

When Jesus first began his teaching and healing ministry, he sat all the people down who were following him and gave them a summary of the Old Testament understanding of God’s righteousness. These are the things, Jesus explained, that characterize a person who loves God:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. 

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. 

Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:12-17, NIV).

Obedient believers are characterized by their:

  • Authentic humility
  • Deep concern over sin, to the point of tears
  • Gentle and meek spirit toward others
  • Intense desire for personal righteousness and corporate justice
  • Daily life of mercy, purity, and peacemaking
  • Willingness to accept adversity as part of the spiritual life

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus (Matthew 22:36-40, NIV)

Humanity is meant for wholeness, integration, and alignment of head, heart, and gut – with the glue of obedient love. We are designed to have all of life in parity and balance – work, play, family, and faith – because God is Lord of it all, not just the spiritual parts.

Historic confessional Christianity acknowledges that obedience is both duty and delight – and they go together in perfect harmony.

Believers consider it a both a high charge and a wonderful privilege to love the Lord with a life devoted to obeying divine commands.

It’s just that sometimes we have our lives so planned and pre-determined that when God’s Spirit shows up to take us to a place of obedience, we struggle to realize what’s happening. And we miss what the Lord is doing in this world. 

At other times, we read scriptural commands and feel the gentle nudging of God’s Spirit, yet we either cannot or will not respond out of fear, busyness, or grief. 

Then there are times in which we are attentive to God’s Word and Spirit, seeking to obey – only to mess up and fail at it. It can leave us wondering if God could ever really do anything in or through us.

The truth is this: Love conquers all. Grace overcomes everything. Mercy never fails.

We are here on this earth because of how much the Lord is devoted to us. Even though we often walk the spiritual road in a three-steps-forward-two-steps-backward kind of way, God accommodates to our weakness. 

So, we keep learning the ways of the Lord under the tutelage of God’s Spirit – who patiently and powerfully works within us so that God’s kingdom breaks into this world and God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.

Blessed God, I seek not my own will but to fulfill your will in my everyday life. Enable me and strengthen me for this sacred duty and delight, in the power of your Spirit. Amen.

Take the Long View (Genesis 49:1-2, 8-13, 21-26)

Jacob blesses his sons on his deathbed by Yoram Raanan

Jacob called his sons together and said:

My sons, I am Jacob,
    your father Israel.
Come, gather around,
    as I tell your future….

Judah, you will be praised
    by your brothers;
they will bow down to you,
    as you defeat your enemies.
My son, you are a lion
    ready to eat your victim!
You are terribly fierce;
    no one will bother you.
You will have power and rule
until nations obey you
    and come bringing gifts.
You will tie your donkey
    to a choice grapevine
and wash your clothes
    in wine from those grapes.
Your eyes are darker than wine,
    your teeth whiter than milk.

Zebulun, you will settle
    along the seashore
and provide safe harbors
    as far north as Sidon….

Naphtali, you are a wild deer
    with lovely fawns.

Joseph, you are a fruitful vine
growing near a stream
    and climbing a wall.
Enemies attacked with arrows,
    refusing to show mercy.
But you stood your ground,
    swiftly shooting back
with the help of Jacob’s God,
    the All-Powerful One—
his name is the Shepherd,
    Israel’s mighty rock.
25 Your help came from the God
your father worshiped,
    from God All-Powerful.
God will bless you with rain
    and streams from the earth;
he will bless you
    with many descendants.
My son, the blessings I give
are better than the promise
    of ancient mountains
    or eternal hills.
Joseph, I pray these blessings
    will come to you,
because you are the leader
    of your brothers. (Contemporary English Version)

Where does confidence come from?

The theme of confidence works its way through the patriarch Jacob’s deathbed prophecies and blessings – a resolute conviction in the promises of God – that the Lord will accomplish exactly what was promised.

Jacob expressed the hope and sure belief that God would bring the Israelites out of Egypt and into the land of Canaan as their inheritance – and, ultimately to the City of God, the eternal inheritance.

The Christian will find much in the blessing of Judah concerning the promises surrounding the coming of Christ. Mentioning the implements of “staff” and “scepter” are symbols of authority. And the reference to a donkey communicated a ruler was coming, as donkeys were the preferred mounts of royalty in ancient times.

What’s more, the washing of garments in wine, and eyes darker than wine, are allusions to the future blessing and abundance that will occur through the tribe of Judah. In fact, the first miracle of Jesus was turning water into wine – a deliberate attempt by the Apostle John to connect Jesus with Old Testament messianic prophecies of abundance and blessing. (John 2:1-12)

It’s important to adopt a long view of life. We must keep in mind that it took eighteen centuries for Jacob’s prophecy of Judah to occur. This long view is what gives us our confidence in life and provides the patience and perseverance we need for the here and now.

Seeing the big picture of God’s work in this world is necessary, because if we do not, we will likely become discouraged with the circumstances we face right now.

The reason Jacob makes it into the great Hall of Faith in the New Testament book of Hebrews is not because he was squeaky clean and perfect in how he lived his life; it was because he took the long view, the big picture, and saw that God was going to fulfill divine promises to Israel:

By an act of faith, Jacob on his deathbed blessed each of Joseph’s sons in turn, blessing them with God’s blessing, not his own—as he bowed worshipfully upon his staff. (Hebrews 11:21, MSG)

Furthermore, when we string the following three verses together across both Old and New Testaments of the Bible, we see the long view of God’s purposes:

It is true that you planned to do something bad to me. But really, God was planning good things. God’s plan was to use me to save the lives of many people. And that is what happened. (Genesis 50:20, ERV)

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. (Jeremiah 29:11, NIV)       

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28, NKJV)

In the Christian faith tradition, all of God’s promises come together and are fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus.

Christ is our salvation, our inheritance, and our hope. To give our lives to following Jesus in complete trust of faith is both our challenge and our privilege.

May we live by faith, and not by fear. And may we have patience and persevere through the most challenging of situations because we have adopted the long view of understanding the God is bringing all divine promises to fruition, all in good time.

Our confidence comes from the Lord.

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through anxious times, so that we who are wearied by the changes of this life may rest in your eternal steadiness. Keep watch, dear God, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.