By Larry Bethune
Friday is my day off, and one Friday, between my daily readings of Niebuhr and Barth, I caught an episode of The People’s Court. What a sad case it was! Even Judge Marilyn, who’s seen it all, was shocked by the testimony of a mother suing her lazy son for stealing $1,000 from her. Andrea said her son Ian had such a tendency to violence she had to get an order of protection against him.
Ian told the judge he gets assistance from the government because his asthma is so bad he can’t work. But he confessed he spends most of his money to buy cigarettes and weed, so he runs a little short by the end of the month. (I’m not making this stuff up!) Judge Marilyn called Ian a “mama’s boy” and told him to grow up, go to school and get out of his mother’s house. She ruled in favor of Andrea and granted her $2,920.
How bad would it have to get for a mother to drag her own son into court? Can you imagine that? But imagine this: things getting so bad a god drags into court the people who worship that god. That’s what the prophet Micah saw happening to his own people. They were sued by the God we worship!
Micah was a country boy. He had no use for the big city. “What is the transgression of Jacob?” he asks. “Is it not Samaria? And what is the high place of Judah? Is it not Jerusalem?” (Micah 1:5)
But it wasn’t urban decadence per se that offended Micah. It was their widespread idolatry. It was their abuse of power. It was their unfair business practices and their war on the poor. It was their misplaced faith in their military might and their arrogant presumption that God was always on their side.
Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance. Therefore thus says the Lord: Now, I am devising against this family an evil from which you cannot remove your necks; and you shall not walk haughtily, for it will be an evil time. (Micah 2:1-3)
Even the priests were greedy. The other prophets preached only what the people wanted to hear, and the kings protected the wealthy against the poor.
Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong! Its rulers give judgment for a bribe, its priests teach for a price, its prophets give oracles for money; yet they lean upon the Lord and say, “Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us.” Therefore, because of you, Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height. (Micah 3:9-12)
They were supposed to be the covenant people of God. They were supposed to take care of each other. They were supposed to be a model to all nations and bring the world to God. But they were lazy and violent and foolish instead. So God sued them.
Imagine the people’s shock as they came to the temple to worship one Sabbath, and this rube from the sticks started preaching at them: Hear what the Lord says: “Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the (lawsuit) of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a (lawsuit) with his people, and he will contend with Israel.” (Micah 6:1-2)
It is not the language of worship they are used to hearing, the litanies of the psalms, but the “hear ye, hear ye” language of the law court. God calls the mountains and the earth to bear witness in the cosmic tribunal and then accuses the people before them:
“O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For 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. O my people, remember….” (Micah 6:3-5)
God has done everything for them, but they have responded like a violent lazy son high on weed. They have no memory of all God has done for them. And no gratitude.
The people are shocked, incredulous. There they stand in their best Sabbath-go-to-meetin’ clothes, offerings in hand, sheep for the sacrifice. How can this be? Aren’t they doing what God asked just by coming to worship? Isn’t that enough to get God on their side? So they ask, “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 thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:6-7)
No! No! No! Those are the outer forms of worship. If there is no coherence between your outer form of worship and your inner values, if there is no correspondence between your rituals of worship and your behavior in life, you’re just going through the motions here and your worship is a superficial mockery of God.
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
This is the scripture which has called together nine churches here in the University of Texas area to minister as a group and to advocate for people in need. We are divided in our views and ways, Catholic and Baptist and Church of Christ and Methodist and Presbyterian and Lutheran and Episcopalian and Disciples of Christ and United Church of Christ, but we all believe in this message of Micah as the Word of God to us.
It has been called the best summary of the message of the prophets, the Old Testament “Bible in a nutshell.” It sounds central themes from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, and Hosea. They all said it well, but this good old country boy, Micah, said it best: And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
It’s as simple as that. So why don’t we do it?
The first part is probably the hardest for us, as it was for God’s people in Jerusalem. The question itself: What does the Lord require? What does God want from us? It’s a question we ask rarely, I think. We can’t even enumerate everything God had already done for us before we even drew our first breath. Truth. Beauty. Love. Family. Friendship. A good creation. The gift of life itself.
It was all waiting for us when we got here. You couldn’t make any of it on your own. You couldn’t afford to buy it if it were for sale. Everything necessary for you to be, everything that makes this life so precious, is a gift of God’s grace to you.
But the great majority of humankind takes it all so much for granted, it doesn’t even occur to most of us to ask what the Lord might want in return. And when some nosy preacher spits in our soup by asking in our behalf, it’s a nuisance, it’s a bother, it’s an irritation. We’re often surprised, even startled. “What! Does the Lord require???”
Yes. The Lord does require. Expects. Demands. The Lord has the right, you know? It shouldn’t surprise you. If you dare to engage the question, follow it through instead of retreating back into the bliss of spiritual denial, you are in for an even greater surprise.
The Lord really doesn’t ask for much. Three things. That’s all. Actually, three simple Hebrew words. Three words! How hard is that? So why don’t we do it?
“Justice!” God requires you and me “to do justice.” And the verb “to do” emphasizes this is not an ideal, but a practice. It is not a concept, but an ethic. It is not some grand philosophy; it is something you do. It is not a passive state of non-aggression, an I-don’t-bother-anybody-else-so-don’t-bother-me isolation, but an active engagement in the world. Justice is about the equal treatment of all people. Justice is about equal opportunity for everyone.
Justice is about insuring that everyone has a fair share of God’s Providence and no one is left out. Justice is about living simply, about being satisfied with having enough and sharing with those who don’t have enough. Justice is about community.
Justice is about being right in your personal relationships and it is about demanding the right social systems in the land. As William Sloan Coffin observes, “The Bible is less concerned with alleviating the effects of injustice than in eliminating the causes of it.”
In the Christian Bible from Moses to Jesus, mishpat is paired with its inseparable Siamese twin, tsedeqah, “righteousness,” which means being right with God, right with others, even right with creation itself. You cannot be close to God without caring for the people on God’s heart. So justice is where religion becomes either real or just so much hot air.
As James puts it, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God…is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27) Mishpat recognizes the essential connectedness and interdependence of all things in God. Writes Wendell Berry:
We cannot live harmlessly or at our own expense; we depend upon other creatures and survive by their deaths. To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. The point is, when we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament; when we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration…in such desecration we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness and others to want.
For years now there has been more than enough food for everyone on earth to survive. There has been more than enough space for everyone to have shelter. There has been more than enough wealth for everyone to be helped. But children starve, and the homeless wander, and the poor suffer, because 10 percent of the world’s population controls what the other 90 per cent need.
We in the top 10 per cent praise the Lord that we are blessed, but the Lord cries, mishpat!
The second word is chesed, and it is not easily translated into English. “Kindness” doesn’t quite cut it. “Kindness” is too easily reduced to the insipid notion that our whole faith tradition is all about being “nice,” and in the final analysis, mainly a matter of learning good manners.
But surely we don’t believe God freed the Hebrew slaves from bondage in Egypt to be “nice?” That Jesus died on the cross so we could be “nice?” That the church is going to shatter the gates of hell and turn the world upside down for the sake of “niceness?”
God demands that we do justice. But God also demands that we love chesed. Chesed is a word rooted in the covenant relationship Israel had with God. It means “faithfulness, loyalty, steadfastness, lasting commitment, continuity of relationship.”
It is about staying true to God’s purpose and God’s people. It is about living in community with one another. It is about enduring, forbearing, forgiving—keeping faith with God and with each other.
Thus it includes kindness, but is more than kindness. God calls us to have a passion for caring that stands the test, that does not wither in the storms of real life. Chesed means keeping covenant with God and God’s people, which includes acts of mercy and kindness and a whole lot more.
The third demand of God is halak, “to walk.” The Hebrew reads literally v’hatznea’ lecheth ‘im eloheka, “a humble-making walk with your God.” The Jews get another word from halak, which is halakah, “commandment,” which means “a walk in the right path, obeying the guidance of God.”
Walking implies a continual accompaniment, a constant companionship. Walking with God means we live our lives before God, with a constant awareness of the Divine Presence. We are never alone or abandoned.
Neither do we think to hide from God. We do not try to compartmentalize God into an occasional thought or imprison God in the church walls where we come to visit once a week. We do not reduce God to the level of being our personal servant or domesticate God into being merely the guardian of our niceness.
Walking with God opens us to the sudden surprises of the Spirit, alerts us to the surplus of grace that surrounds us, and amazes us with the mercies of the Almighty. In short, walking with God keeps us humble. I am reminded of one of Augustine’s lovely confessions:
O Beauty ever ancient, ever new
You were with me,
But I was not with you.
God is always with us, always aware of us. It is we who are not always attentive or even aware of God. But Micah is right. God requires our attention, and to the degree that we learn day by day, even minute by minute, to “practice the presence of God,” as Brother Lawrence put it long ago, our lives are transformed, we begin to do justice, and we learn to love loyal kindness.
Mishpat. Chesed. Halak. Justice, steadfast kindness. A humble walk. Like faith, hope, and love in the New Testament, just three words. Three little words; is that so hard? Then why don’t we do it?
The Muslims tell the story of a Sufi holy man who made a pilgrimage to Mecca. When he had completed all of the prescribed rituals, he knelt down and touched his forehead to the ground, and prayed: “Allah! I have only one desire in life. Give me the grace never to offend you again.” Hearing this, the All-Merciful laughed out loud and said, “That’s what they all ask for. But if I granted everyone this grace, whom would I forgive?”
After all this time, though all humanity knows that God, by any name we call God, wants peace and justice, compassion and community in the world, we have nevertheless failed to achieve it. And sadly, we Christians have nothing to brag about to the other religions of the world for our commitment to justice, loyal kindness, or a humble walk with God.
Who could blame God for getting fed up and dragging us into the cosmic court? But God forgives us. God forgives us. And God grants us the grace still to call us to life, to urge us to wholeness, like a loving parent to require us to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. For God’s sake, for our own sake, for the sake of our children and all the generations to come, why don’t we do it? May we pray?
“Dear Lord and Parent of us all, forgive our foolish ways. Re-clothe us in our rightful minds, in purer lives your service find, in deeper reverence praise.” Don’t give up on us, Lord, but show us the way. We are slow learners, but we want to please you. Help us in this beloved community, to be a model of your way for the others that one day all humanity might live in the freedom of your love and the peace of your Spirit with justice, kindness, and humility. Amen.
Larry Bethune is the senior pastor of University Baptist Church in Austin, Texas. This sermon was printed in Sacred Seasons, Hunger Emphasis 2005.