What Does the Lord Require?
This week, my son, Ashe had some homework to do. He rarely has homework since he is in kindergarten, but he did on Thursday night. It wasn’t much, but he had this math worksheet which required him to draw pictures of math sentences. He was supposed to use two differently colored crayons to show how two plus two equals four. As he was doing it, he made a simple mistake. He got carried away and drew three green circles instead of two green and two pink. He was pretty upset about his error. He was tearful and angry, smacking his hand on the table and really beating himself up. Now, not to toot my kid’s horn, but he’s pretty good at math and he definitely knows what 2+2 equals. I was trying to help him see that he got the important part right, that the coloring part was just a mistake, and we could easily fix it by switching from the pink crayon to black and covering the extra green circle. Nothing I said mattered much to Ashe though. It didn’t matter to him that he knew how to do the actual math, it didn’t matter to him that we could correct his error by choosing a darker color, it didn’t matter to him when I said we learn by messing up and the important thing is to try again. Finally, he burst out, “but my teacher will know I made a mistake!”
In that moment, I realized part of what was happening for Ashe. He really likes his teacher, and he wants to make her proud of him. He wants to get everything perfect because he thinks that’s what she wants. And being upset at the mistake was less about simply making an error and more about what his teacher would think. Sound familiar? Sound relatable? Realizing that we were in the moment when nothing I said would be helpful, I made a mental note to return to that conversation later. I needed to circle back because Ashe needed to hear that his teacher doesn’t care if he is perfect at everything. In fact, if I had to guess, she would probably rather see a kid learning resilience through trying again over a kid who has impossible standards about always getting it right the first time. She probably just wants to know that he is trying, that he’s doing his best. She isn’t mad at him because of his mistake because she is graceful. And most importantly he needed to hear that his teacher doesn’t love him because he gets everything right all the time, his teacher loves him because she is loving.
Our text today comes from the book of Micah in the Old Testament, and what unfolds in these verses is a higher stakes version of the same kind of conversation. Micah was a pre-exilic prophet, meaning he was writing before the Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 722BCE. He was writing around the same time as Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea and shares many of their same messages of judgement, right action, and grace. The book of Micah is set up like a scene from a court room. God has a dispute with the people. Their country, their religion is full of “self-serving rulers, corrupt judges, false prophets, and idolatrous people.” Something else familiar and relatable? The people have turned away from God. So, before all of nature the case will be made; “the Lord has a controversy with his people and he will contend with Israel” says verse 2. God’s case is made against the people and judgment is about to be rendered.
God’s presents evidence of God’s faithfulness. “I rescued you from slavery, from the injustice you faced in Egypt. I gave you great leaders in Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. When King Balak of Moab wanted to curse you, I caused Balaam to bless you instead. When you crossed the Jordan River into the promised land, I protected you.” It is a sampling of the many ways God has been faithful, saving, protecting, and providing for God’s people through all of time.
And Israel has no defense at all. There’s nothing that can be said or done that will make it alright that over and over again, Israel has chosen injustice, greed, selfishness, idolatry. So instead of defending itself, Israel simply asks, “what can I do to make it right?” What follows is a litany of ways that Israel suggests could repair their relationship with God. Can we make a burnt offering with young calves? Would huge gifts of rams and rivers of oil pay the debt? Should we be like other religious groups and sacrifice our children? There’s a bit of a tone here in these words. It is hard for me to read it without thinking that Israel is really saying “what do I have to do to get you off my back? what would make you leave me alone?” Which, of course, is the problem- like a loving parent or a good teacher, God isn’t going to get off your back. God is not going away.
This court room conversation echoes the other pre-exilic prophets who are critical of the system that uses the sacrifices of animals and oil and gifts of money to balance the scales of right and wrong. You see, what these prophets knew was that the people might be getting all of the religious behavior right, but their hearts were unrepentant. In Isaiah, God says, “what to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?...I have had enough…I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.” It is as if God says, “you’ve practiced your religion, but it is completely useless because you don’t mean it.” But, Isaiah, continues, “wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” That’s what God is looking for. Not religious perfection, but spiritual conversion, religious integrity. Hosea simply says, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” And of course, two different times Jesus calls his hearers to learn what it means for God to say “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
And back in the court room of Micah, the prophet says, “God 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?” That’s the answer, the solution to the dispute, the restoration- do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God. There are no items to check off a list; it is a whole life of faithfulness.
It’s a beautiful thought and an idea that is foundational to the faith we affirm. And also, what does it mean? How do we apply this requirement to our actual daily living? Surely it is more than just a nice bit of poetry. Because here’s the thing- if it is just another thing we say we believe but we don’t do, then we’re right back in the court room facing our sin and empty words, right? God has shown us what is good- to do justice, love kindness, to walk humbly with your God. I want to offer some different perspectives on how we might understand these words in our everyday lives.
In the lectionary, this passage is to be read alongside verses from 1 Corinthians chapter 1.These words from Paul remind us that “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being save it is the power of God…Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame what the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” You see, God uses our imperfection to help us live out the call God has put on our lives. It is our humility that will help us to fulfill God’s requirements. And it will seem like foolishness to anyone on the outside, choosing humility, putting others before ourselves, fighting losing battles in the name of justice- but it is the power of God.
Another perspective: we are all climbing ladders. You’re at ground level, but you know that if you could get over a wall, you would be free. So, you get a ladder and begin climbing. We spend so much of our lives climbing, striving, reaching for something that will, we believe, get us to where we want to go. So you climb your ladder- maybe it is your career, maybe it is seeking financial stability, maybe it is the way you look, maybe it is raising your kids, maybe it is being a good church member- none of these things are bad, of course, so you climb until you get to the top. And at the top, what you see is that you had your ladder leaned against the wrong wall. There is nothing on the other side of this wall, there’s nothing there. These words- justice, loving kindness, walking humbly with God- they are the right wall. This is the wall to lean your ladder against. This is the only striving that isn’t in vain. This is the path to freedom.
Of course, these verses also draw us into self-examination. How am I doing justice? Are my choices, my money, my time, my behaviors creating justice for others? What am I doing when I witness injustice? If we’re paying attention at all, we cannot keep from seeing injustice all around us. Every week, but especially this week, we are reminded that we do not live in a just world. So, what are we doing about it? What are you going to do about it? And how am I loving kindness? How do I offer true kindness to others? Or am I allowing my busyness, my worry, my own pain, my own dissatisfaction to keep me so focused on myself that I do not offer true kindness to others? Am I walking humbly with God? “Humbly” here also means “reverently.” Am I spending time with God, alive to what God is doing in the world? Am I practicing gratitude? Does God’s goodness illuminate my path? Is God part of my life at all times, or just when I feel like it? These are the kinds of questions that we should be asking ourselves every day, every moment. God has shown us what is good. Are we living well?
The book of Micah ends with a final verdict in the case. And much how I attempted to explain to Ashe that his teacher cares more about him than about him getting all the right answers, the final verdict is a word of grace. Micah 7:18-19 read, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depth of the sea.” Grace gets the final word. Our work, our pursuit of justice, kindness, walking humbly with God, it matters greatly. It will be what ultimately defines our lives. In the final analysis, how you fulfilled this requirement will be what is left of you. And also, we are forever bound up, held, nurtured by God’s grace. We recommit ourselves to this holy work, we try again, we continue our pursuit. Thanks be to God. Amen.