What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
This 8th verse is all too familiar – one of the most quoted Old Testament scriptures in the church today. But we often read it out of context, not fully understanding it’s place in our institutional and faithful heritage. So let’s consider today the larger text in which this 8th verse gets its foundation – who speaks this, to whom are they speaking it, and what can we learn from it as disciples over 2500 years after these words may have first been uttered?
I like to think of our text today as an ancient episode of Judge Judy. God is the plaintiff, the people of Israel are the defendant, and Micah, our prophet, serves as the judge and narrator of the story.
You’ve seen the show before, or have heard of its story? The judge introduces the parties and states the claim of the plaintiff. Here, the judge – our prophet – says the Lord has a controversy with his people – he will contend with the people Israel. In typical courtroom fashion, the plaintiff is invited to make their case. And God speaks and questions what problem Israel has with God. Why have they not been obedient to God, why have they turned from God to worship others? God is clearly upset, speaking in what seems to be a demanding voice, “Answer me!” God says.
But there seems to be no answer, the people are silent. So God goes on and pleads the case naming for all of creation – the mountains and the hills who the Lord has called to listen, serving in the form of a jury – explaining all that God has already done for the people Israel. He offers proof of the saving work already offered for their lives. “I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam, son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”
God is clearly displeased. There’s not only a sense of displeasure, but God’s argument has a fairly aggressive tone to it!
And then in typical Judge Judy fashion, there’s the ignorant defendant’s response. You know what I’m talking about? The answer that as soon as the person opens their mouth, you start yelling at the TV for them to stop talking? They are only making their case worse.
Whether from the collective voice of the people or perhaps just from a representative spokesperson of Israel there comes this response, “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? 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 oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
In traditional dramatic fashion, the response of the defendant goes way overboard, to the point of ridiculous. With what shall I come before the Lord is their response. How can I show you that I am faithful, God? Shall I come with burnt offerings, or a year old calf?
That’s an expected response. That makes sense. That’s what the people have done in the past, and we can do it again. But they don’t stop. … Would you be pleased with thousands of rams? Still not out of the question, but a step beyond expected reality. … Would you be pleased with ten thousand rivers of oil? Now we’ve gone beyond what could actually even happen. Now we’re just insulting God. But again, we don’t stop. … What about my firstborn child – would that be enough to forgive me of my sin?
The response of the people “reinforces the pattern of showy religiosity that Micah has already condemned [in earlier chapters].”[i] They are taking a page out of the religious books of others deities of the time. If we offer the right sacrifice, will we be in right relationship with God? They have become over religious – focusing too much on the expectations of false gods – who care more about “correct worship” and nothing about “right relationship.” The people Israel have lost sight of how God has called us to live in relationship with God and with the rest of creation.
So the Judge steps back in – Micah, acting as the voice of reason and the mediator between the people and God, speaks. Like any good prophet, Micah speaks on behalf the Lord, “The Lord has told you, O Mortal (meaning all of humanity) what is good; what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
The Lord has spoken … like Jesus summing up the Ten Commandments, Micah echoes to Decalogue. Have no other Gods – love the Lord your God – walk humbly with God. Listen for God’s voice; do not think yourself more important than the creator.
And be in right relationship with the rest of humanity, the rest of creation. Do justice, and love mercy – love your neighbor as you love yourself – do no covet, honor one another, take not the life of another.
Micah is doing nothing more than re-teaching the Law of God as laid out to Moses on the mountain. Micah is rephrasing it, giving it more intentional meaning, but he is simply re-stating the intent of God to be in relationship with humanity and for the community of God to be in right relationship with humanity as first indicated in the ancient stone tablets.
So how can we apply these simple, yet ancient practices in our lives today? How do WE do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God?
We are to do justice. I think we would be wise to heed the words of Dr. Amy Oden, a professor at Wesley Seminary in Washington, DC. She says in her commentary on this text, “Periodic nods to equity do not constitute a faithful life.”
Micah does not give caveats on how often we should fight for justice in the world; we are instructed that justice is to become a way of life, not a pattern that ebbs and flows as we feel like helping others. Justice is a call to do more than just offer food and money to those in need, it’s a call to do more than just build shelters and offer coats to those living on the streets. Justice is a call to restore the brokenness of our societal laws so that all of humanity may live in right relationship with one another. It is a call to stand up against unfair judgments. It is a promise to be guarded against language with racial and judgmental undertones.
Doing justice is a promise to remain invested in someone’s life, not simply giving a few bucks to a person in material poverty so that you can feel good about yourself in the morning.
Again, Dr. Oden says that to be doing justice, “we cannot only observe racial membership quotas on committees in place of seeking racial justice.” We can’t give a nod to acknowledge that something should be done, we must do it. Do Justice. “[We must] be a voice for oppressed persons … and fight for the rights of … every person who is treated as less than God’s child.”[ii]
And we must love kindness – or love mercy. The Hebrew word here is hased. It carries with it the connotation of God’s loving-kindness. Be loyal to God’s love, and love others. Be an example of God’s love – the love of God that is filled with grace and mercy. So love mercy, show compassion, give others love even when love may not be what you feel they deserve. To love kindness, to love mercy – these call us to be the love of God, a love that is extended to all of creation, even in the midst of what may be brokenness. This love is to be a light for the darkest places of the world.
And walk humbly with your God. Be humble – acknowledge that God knows more than you. Listen for God’s voice instead of always speaking up as if you have all the answers. Learn to see God even in the midst of communities, people, and places you don’t want to believe God resides. Humble yourself and allow yourself to know God is far more active in the world that we often give credit.
Walk humbly with Your God. Claim the story – be in relationship with your Lord. Micah’s language echoes the words of Christ. Not just believe in God, not just have faith, but walk with God. Reside with God. Be present and cooperative with the Lord. “Follow me,” says Christ; “Come and see,” says the Lord. Give yourself permission to admit ignorance – ask for forgiveness for the times you’ve claimed to know more than God – rely on God that we may be convicted in the truth. Hold fast to the story, believe in it passionately, share it, and celebrate it.
The call from Micah, a reminder of God’s covenant with the faithful community, is to do more than just be religious from a pious standpoint. Do more than just go through the motions of sacrificial rites – but it is a call to be reciprocal with God and with God’s beloved creation.
God speaks in the courtroom, bringing charges against the people for they had failed to live as the community God envisioned – as the community God had created. But we have hope to live out the vision God has for us as God lays out the vision through the prophet Micah. When you find yourself wondering, how is it I am to be faithful unto the Lord? How do I live my life today in such a way that God will be pleased? How can I be a faithful disciple of my Savior Jesus Christ?
Hear these words:
Have you not heard, here is what the Lord requires of you: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.
[i] Amy Oden. http://www.workingpreacher.org. Retrieved February 2014.
[ii] Brett Younger. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Feasting on the Word; Year A, Volume 1. Eds. David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.