What does God require of us? Micah says we are to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with our God. Doesn’t sound all that hard, does it? We’re all kind people, most of the time anyway. We attempt to practice justice by loving our neighbor, most of the time anyway. And we’re humble enough when it comes to loving God. But is most of the time enough?
In his book The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann suggests that the prophets of Israel were about two things. Their ministry included both criticizing and energizing. The prophets criticize the elite, they disturb our status quo, they question the reigning order of things, they help us to see the normal state of affairs in a different light, and they advocate for a new way of living every dimension of life: personal, social, spiritual, economic, and political. The prophets afflicted the comfortable and the complacent. Brueggemann says that when we read the prophets we should expect “a slap on our helmet.”
But the prophets, he goes on to say, also energized God’s people. They comforted the afflicted. They intended to “generate hope, affirm identity, and create a new future.” They weren’t just negative naysayers. One of the functions of a prophet was to offer positive affirmation, and encouragement. Brueggemann concluded his remarks by saying, “Yes, the prophets dished out the vinegar; but they also gave us honey for the heart.” [I]
So, bearing in mind the vinegar and the honey, the two faces of a prophet if you will, let’s take a deeper look at this passage. But as we begin to do that I think we must first consider the meaning of humility. The common connotation of the word “humility” is “to be taken down a peg,” right? To be humble is to lower one’s self to the level of others. But humility also carries with it, overtones of repentance. One often has to be haughty or arrogant or prideful before one discovers humility.
Now these are all good definitions and helpful for us to understand our place in the order of things. But I think Micah was driving at something else here. Consider that he uses humility as the descriptor for being in the presence of God. And not just in God’s presence but actually journeying with God in this life.
This is fascinating considering the common theology of Micah’s day. Remember the God of the Hebrew Bible was “other-than,” God was literally believed to be in the Holy of Holies, in the Arc of the Covenant, in the center of the Temple. There was no Jesus yet. There was no understanding of an incarnate God, yet. There was no wider understanding of God being with or journeying beside anyone.
Or was there? Think about some of the earliest writings in the Bible, the Psalms. In the Psalter, some of the writers there seem to have a personal understanding of the divine both in creation and within the events of their lives. Even Genesis uses human characteristics to describe God, God walking in the Garden of Eden for example. And there were many incarnational visions, especially among the prophets, of what a messiah might look like, a warrior, a king, a liberator, a servant.
My point here is that Micah was really ahead of his time theologically. He’s proposing that humility should ultimately be endowed with an understanding that God is not “other-than” but instead “present-with” us as we walk through this world.
And this is no small thing as we look at this prophecy of Micah. He was criticizing the elite class of his day. Before and after this text he’s anything but hopeful. Micah said that God would cut down, destroy, demolish all of their buildings and their idols, their cities and even their horses. Real gloom and doom kind of stuff. At one-point Micah even says, “I will make you a sign of destruction, your inhabitants an object of hissing!”
Now, this is important to the contextual integrity of this text. Micah wasn’t a fortuneteller looking into his crystal ball, he was looking at the failure of the nation and what that failure would most likely cost them. What was that failure? They failed to live up to their covenant with God. God’s covenant challenged them, as a nation, to care of the widows and orphans, to provide relief to the suffering and liberation of the oppressed. But they weren’t doing that. In fact, Israel was doing quite the opposite, the were stuck deep within that trap that I alluded to earlier; the trap of “I’ve got mine, too bad for everyone else.” Does that sound familiar to anyone as we think about the state of our nation today?
But, it’s not all hopeless. Remember Brueggemann’s words. A prophet was also tasked with energizing the people. And it’s this energizing grace that lays at the heart of this passage. What do I mean? Well, inserted among all of this doom and gloom is a short message of hope; a message to show them, and us, a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel. And what does this flicker of hope look like? What does God require for hope to win the day? God as told you, human ones, what is good and what is required to express that goodness. “Do justice, embrace faithful love,” older versions of the Bible say, “love kindness,” and finally, “walk humbly with your God.”
But here’s the thing. Here’s the nugget that we can take-away from this articulation of hope. These “requirements” are not disconnected from one another. They’re interdependent. Like the peanut butter and the chocolate in a Reses cup, each one is enhanced by the other.
I mean, what does it mean to “embrace faithful love”? Maybe it means going out of our way to share random acts of kindness? How? Well, how about smiling at a stranger just to brighten their day or giving a hug to a friend who’s down so they might feel the literal embrace of faithful love? I don’t know. Maybe walking dogs at the humane society just because you can? There are so many examples of this. So many ways we can be kind.
But if being kind represents the little things that we can do to share an embrace of faithful love, then doing justice takes it to the next level. Doing justice is kindness on steroids. Doing justice is taking those random acts of kindness and intentionally acting in such a way that brings the embrace of faithful love to the whole of society. Doing justice means changing our narrative from “I’ve got mine” to “we’ve got ours.” Do you see what I’m driving at here? Kindness is being just to each person and Justice is being kind to everyone. This is important so I’ll say it again. Kindness is being just to each person and Justice is being kind to everyone. The two are inseparable.
So, when we take-action, when we live-into our covenant with God as a people and as a nation, when we’re just to each person and kind to everyone, we’re sharing our embrace of faithful love. When we advocate for the rights of immigrants, we’re sharing the loving embrace of God with the “widows and orphans” who are seeking something greater for themselves and their loved ones. When we march to raise awareness of the on-going disaster of climate change and when we challenge ourselves to address and reduce our own carbon footprint, we’re embracing the planet with the love of God. When we propagate peace, both within ourselves and to the ends of earth, we’re offering the peace of Christ to everyone as we coexist in this world by respecting all forms of religious expression. And we do all of these things, my friends, all of these things, not of our own accord, but as we walk humbly, side by side, and hand in hand with each other and with our Creator.
Kindness is being just to each person and Justice is being kind to everyone. May it be so for you and for me. Amen and the people of God said, Amen
[I] Dan Clendenin. Micah: Prophetic Critique and Pastoral Comfort (www.journeyingwithjesus.net) 2017