6 Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.
2 Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for the Lord has a controversy with his people,
and he will contend with Israel.
3 “O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 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.
5 O my people, 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.”
6 “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?
7 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?”
8 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?
What does God require of you? That is the question we regularly ponder. The question, however, is prefaced by a declaration of what God has already done. The reading from the Old Testament for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany concludes with a passage well known to many. I regularly use of it myself. What does God require, but justice, mercy, and humble obedience? While Micah 6:8 is a favorite verse among those of us who believe that social justice stands at the heart of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, but have we truly fulfilled God’s desire for us?
The reading from the prophet Micah begins with a court summons, because God is suing Israel for being unfaithful to the covenant. Eugene Peterson puts it as clearly as can be in The Message:
“Take your stand in court.
If you have a complaint, tell the mountains;
make your case to the hills.
And now, Mountains, hear God’s case;
listen, Jury Earth—
For I am bringing charges against my people.
I am building a case against Israel.” (vs. 1-2).
Just like Perry Mason, God is formulating a case, and inviting creation itself to be the jury. So, what do you have to say for yourself? What is your defense? Is God just being overly litigious, or is there something to God’s case?
The prophet who brings this word to Israel, this spokesperson for God, is Micah. Like many of the “Minor Prophets,” we know little about him. The superscription to the book (Micah 1:1) takes note of three kings of Judah, during which time he is supposed to have been active—Jotham (742-735 BCE), Ahaz (735-715 BCE), and Hezekiah (715-687 BCE). Whatever was the exact timing of his prophetic ministry, it was a time of upheaval and external threat (Assyria). What is clear from the book itself is that Micah was concerned about ordinary people. Commentator Daniel Simundson writes: “He felt compassion for the poor and disposed, and held the leaders responsible for their suffering. We can learn something about the people’s social and economic situation from Micah’s condemnation of the rulers, merchants, and prophets” [“The Book of Micah, New Interpreter’s Bible, 7:534]. You might say that he didn’t hold the 1% in high regard, but as Simundson notes, there are similarities in message to that of Micah’s contemporary, the one we call First Isaiah. So, he wasn’t alone in his messaging!
It is this God who is concerned about the poor and the disposed, who speaks to Judah through Micah in the Old Testament reading for the fourth Sunday after Epiphany. When we listen to the full story, it’s clear that this God can get angry with those who fail to abide by God’s vision for humanity. But, we’ll not be saved by our piety. God demands actions. God isn’t interested in our burnt offerings, or even the offering of our first-born child (suggesting that human sacrifice was present in the region). Instead, God demands that we attend to those in need. This is the backdrop of God’s covenant lawsuit against Judah. Before we get to the request for action, we first need to hear what God has already done for Judah. Micah reminds the people of God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The prophet takes note of earlier leaders—Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Yes, Micah mentions the sister of Moses, suggesting that to Micah she is a co-liberator. We need to take note of this. All of this is meant to remind us that when it comes to covenants, God keep’s God’s side of the bargain (verses 3-5). But do we?
That is the question for the final set of verses. What does God require? What are the expectations that God has for us? What is clear is that God isn’t interested in burnt offerings. It doesn’t matter if it is a young calf, ten thousand rivers of oil, or even thousands of rams. None of the usual offerings matter to God. That should be taken note of, because sometimes we want to think that our piety is sufficient. Surely, even if the usual offerings are not acceptable, the offering of one’s first born should suffice. This statement, about an offering of the “the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul,” should give us pause. It’s a reminder that human sacrifice was still prevalent, even in ancient Israel. But that will not suffice either.
These are difficult words for good church people. There’s something to be said for showing up week in and week out, but if that’s all there is, is it sufficient? Another way of putting it. If my Sunday piety doesn’t influence how I live amongst my neighbors from Monday through Saturday, is there any substance to my piety? The answer appears to be no.
This is what God wants from us. This is what is good: “Do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” Turning again to Eugene Peterson’s rendition of the passage:
But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
take God seriously. (vs. 8 The Message)
Yes, “do what is fair and just to your neighbor.” “Be compassionate and loyal in your love.” What could be plainer? Jesus called on us to love God and love our neighbors. He made it clear that these two commands are connected. You can’t do one without doing the other. This will require a great deal of humility. There’s no room for narcissism in this word of guidance. “Don’t take yourself too seriously” is the way Peterson puts it. Is this not a word for our times?
Humility is a character trait that is difficult to maintain. We all struggle with the call to be humble. I want to be recognized for my accomplishments. I want the applause. But as I wallow in this “need,” I hear the call to humility, for this is what God desires of me. Indeed, it takes that humility to embrace justice and fairness. It takes humility to love compassionately. What does God require of us? God has revealed the answer here in Micah. If we need some New Testament support, what about the word offered by James:
Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world. [James 1:26-27The Message].
Indeed! And timely words for a moment like ours, for it does seem that a goodly portion of the Christian community in America (at least) is caught up in a form of piety that is unlike the one Micah proclaims.
Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan and is the author of a number of books including Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016) and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015).