1 Hear what the LORD is saying:
Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains; let the hills hear your voice!
2 Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the LORD! Hear, eternal foundations of the earth!
The LORD has a lawsuit against his people; with Israel he will argue.
3 “My people, what did I ever do to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!
4 I brought you up out of the land of Egypt; I redeemed you from the house of slavery. I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.
5 My people, remember what Moab’s King Balak had planned, and how Balaam, Beor’s son, answered him! Remember everything from Shittim to Gilgal, that you might learn to recognize the righteous acts of the LORD!”
6 With what should I approach the LORD and bow down before God on high? Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings, with year-old calves?
7 Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime; the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
8 He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God. (CEB)
Do, Love, Walk
Sometimes people of faith ask questions about what God really wants from us. How good is good enough? If I have my checklist of religious things that I do, how many of them do I need to check off before I can say I’m saved? One of our human tendencies is to answer those questions with what we think or what we want rather than listening to what God has already told us. We like to congratulate—even justify—ourselves by pointing out all of our religious activities. We’re doing the right things. We show up for worship. We dot our “i”s and cross our “t”s.
Truth be told, we are not wrong to think that our presence in worship matters, that being an active part of our religious community is important, because it is. Our worship and religious rituals do matter. At the same time, God expects to see our religion result in something. True worship extends into how we live and behave every day. True worship extends into how we treat others, how we live with others, how we give of ourselves for others. Our everyday ethics matter to God more than anything else.
Our worship is not about self-interest, but self-offering. But, as a pastor who organizes and leads worship, I’ve heard people complain more times than I can count about how they didn’t get anything out of it. As if they only came to worship so they could get something for themselves. One of my seminary professors, Will Willimon, was Dean of Duke Chapel, and he had someone say that to him: that he didn’t get anything out of the sermon or the worship. Will responded by asking the man what he brought to it.
We call worship a “service” because it’s our service to God. We offer our worship to God by offering ourselves. And we do get something out of that. We do receive grace, which is God’s presence with us. But if receiving is our primary reason for worship, as if God or the pastor owes us some good feelings, then we have disordered priorities. And, if our worship fails to result in the ethics that God expects of us, then we haven’t listened to what God wants.
If that’s us—and we ought not rush to discount that it might be us—then we’re in good company. The people of Israel and Judah had similar listening problems.
The prophet Micah, who lived in the late 8th century B.C., presents a covenant lawsuit that is brought by God against the people of Israel. Back in 1996, God got into a small argument with me about calling me to ministry, and I didn’t win. But this is a lawsuit, and God calls the mountains, hills, and foundations of the earth forth as witnesses to the proceedings. “Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the LORD! Hear, eternal foundations of the earth! The LORD has a lawsuit against his people; with Israel he will argue” (Micah 6:2 CEB).
There is some mild wordplay going on in this verse, with Israel he will argue, or will contend. You might recall that, when Jacob received the name Israel he was told, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won” (Genesis 32:28 CEB). The name Israel literally means fight against God. Now, in this lawsuit, God is the one who will contend. God will argue. God will strive. The name Israel can also mean God fights.
God begins the argument by asking the people what God has done to them, how God has wearied them. Then, the savings acts of God on behalf of the people are recounted: The Exodus from slavery in Egypt where God sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam to lead them; the attempt of King Balak to get the prophet Balaam to curse the people but thrice spoke a blessing instead (c.f. Numbers 22-24); all the events from Shittim (which was east of the Jordan where Joshua had the people camp before crossing over) to Gilgal (which was west of the Jordan, where Joshua had the people camp after God parted the Jordan’s waters so the people could cross into the Promised Land) (c.f. Joshua 3-5).
The people seem to have forgotten their story and, in forgetting their story, they have forgotten the saving acts of their God. In forgetting who they are and the covenant faithfulness that God has shown to them by always remembering them, they have fallen out of a right relationship with God and with each other.
You see, earlier in Micah, we find that God has already laid out the charges against Israel. The powerful “covet fields and seize them, houses and take them away. They oppress a householder and those in his house, a man and his estate” (Micah 2:2 CEB).
They’re the ones who “hate good and love evil, who tear the skin off them, and the flesh off their bones, who devour the flesh of my people, tear off their skin, break their bones in pieces, and spread them out as if in a pot, like meat in a kettle” (Micah 3:2-3 CEB). They proclaim “Peace!” when they have plenty to eat, but at the same time they stir up violence against the poor and starving (c.f. Micah 3:5). The officials of Jerusalem, “give justice for a bribe, and her priests teach for hire. Her prophets offer divination for silver” (Micah 3:11 CEB).
It’s dangerous to forget our story. When we forget, or when we only remember certain parts, then we lose something about ourselves. The adage that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it rings true yet again. This is one of the reasons why we hear the account of the Great Thanksgiving each Sunday, because it reminds us of our story and recounts the mighty acts of God on our behalf from creation to the future yet to come.
Here, God calls the people to remember their story once again, and not merely part, but the whole of their story. They were slaves, and God let them to freedom. They were homeless, wandering refugees, and God guided them to a home. They were led by God’s hand all along and, as part of the covenant God made with them, God has expectations for their behavior toward other people. To remember their story serves as starting point for a return to right relationship.
Then, in verse 6, the defendant, Israel, responds with a series of questions. Essentially, Israel is asking God, What more do you want? How much more religious do we need to be to make you happy? Do you want burnt offerings and calves a year old? Will you be happy with thousands of rams, or rivers of oil? Do I need to sacrifice my oldest child to receive your forgiveness? What more does the Lord God want? It’s as if Israel thinks that God could actually be pleased with excess, and they’re trying to figure out exactly how far they need to go with it.
That’s when Micah re-enters the conversation by reminding Israel that God has already told them—and us—what is good and what the LORD God requires of us: “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8 CEB).
The first thing God requires is justice, but what does that mean, exactly? Justice is part of God’s nature. Isaiah tells us that the Lord is a God of justice. (c.f. Isaiah 30:18). Justice is concerned with community by finding a balance between personal good and the common good.
There is the kind of justice that focuses on the relationships between people in a community—including those who might be considered outsiders to a community. Under God’s Law, there is no person among us who is outside of our community or whom we can treat as less than a full member of our community (c.f. Leviticus 19:34).
There is the kind of justice that focuses on the equitable distribution of goods, necessities, wealth, and burdens of a community.
And there is the kind of justice that focuses on the social order that is necessary within the community to accomplish the first two. Justice is about our ethics. It’s about how well we live, relate, and share together.
Next, Micah tells us that God requires us to embrace faithful love. Some English translations render this: to love kindness or to love mercy. Like justice, to embrace faithful love is about our ethics. It’s about how we treat others with kindness, dignity, love, grace, peace, encouragement. It’s about how we bear with others in the midst of joy or sorrow, famine or plenty. It’s about how we look past a person’s circumstances and consequences-of-birth to see the person: beloved of God, made in the image of God, redeemed by God, and commended into our personal and communal care by God.
To walk humbly with God implies an openness to the idea that, despite what we think in our frail certainties, we really might not have all the right answers. To walk humbly with God means that we recognize our faults before we start to pull specks out of other peoples’ eyes with our divine tweezers. We might see faults and sins in others but, instead of passing judgment on them, we remind ourselves that we’re guilty of sin, too.
The holiness that God expects of us is not that we separate ourselves from those whom we deem as not holy as us. In light of the petitions up for vote at General Conference in May, it’s my hope—my prayer—that United Methodists everywhere would remember that. Only when we learn to walk humbly with God can we learn and understand how to do justice and embrace faithful love.
Through Micah, God reminded the people that religious activity and ritual adherence do nothing for us—and do nothing but disappoint and anger God—when our when our ethics fall short of what God requires. Yes, religious activity is important. It is. It’s important to worship and tithe and receive communion and sing and eat. We definitely like to eat.
Jesus spoke to the importance of religious observance when he told the Scribes and Pharisees, “How terrible for you Pharisees! You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and garden herbs of all kinds, while neglecting justice and love for God. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others” (Luke 11:42 CEB; c.f. also Matthew 23:23). They gave every 10th leaf of their herb plants because they wanted to make sure they gave a full tithe which, honestly, is probably better than some of us do. But they also failed to do justice. Jesus notes that they cheated widows—who were among the most vulnerable members of the community—out of their homes (c.f. Luke 20:46).
We are invited to religious practice and ritual observance because they help us remember our story. Faithfulness is going through the motions of our religion and meaning it. And, faithfulness is remembering that our worship of God doesn’t stop at the sanctuary exit. Our worship of God extends into the world, and God is more concerned about how we love others—or fail to love others—than just about anything else. There is no room for misogyny, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, or any other personal fear or form of discrimination that prevents us from loving others fully. Our relationship with God is only right when our relationship with each other—especially the least and different among us—is right, too.
We’ve been told what the Lord requires. The question is, are we courageous enough to live it?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay