Even if you rarely crack open a Bible, the final verse I just read from Micah is likely familiar to you: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” One of the most-quoted verses of the Hebrew Scripture, it’s like a bumper-sticker summary of what faith is about. But, even if this is one of your favorite verses, I’m guessing that, like me, you may know little else about Micah or the context of his prophecy.
And context, my friends, is important. It may be an awkward metaphor when our local soil is still blanketed with thick snow… But context is the ground on which all our arguments stand, the earth from which ideas sprout and spread seed in the winds of a particular era of history. To examine the meaning and implications of any thought or ideology, we must get as close as we can to the contextual soil in which it is rooted.
So who was Micah? When and where did he live, and how do his powerful words grow out of the fertile mulch of his context?
Micah was a contemporary of the prophets Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea, a Judean man who lived in the days after the descendants of Kings Solomon had divided the promised land into two kingdoms, the Northern kingdom of Samaria and the Southern kingdom of Judah. These were also the days before the Assyrian empire invaded, conquered, and carried a large portion of Israel’s population off to captivity. This was a time of wealth and prosperity in Samaria and Judah. The Temple in Jerusalem flourished, and people demonstrated their religious loyalties with extravagant gifts.
Yet Micah perceived that all was not well. His view was shaped by his upbringing in a small rural community named Moresheth, which was about twenty miles southwest of Jerusalem.[i] He surely witnessed firsthand how local farm workers struggled in an economic system that exploited their labor to the benefit of rich, urban-dwelling landowners. “They covet fields and seize them; houses and take them away,” says Micah in chapter 2, where he also notes how people who don’t like what he’s saying try to shut down his prophetic warnings: “Do not preach” they tell him, “one should not say such things!”
And it’s a little ironic to share this, seeing as our congregation is having our Pizza, Beer, and Gospel gathering tonight, but Micah even says, “If someone were to go about uttering empty falsehoods, saying, ‘I will preach to you of wine and strong drink,’ such a one would be the preacher this people could accept.”
Later, Micah denounces the rulers of both nations as corrupt, saying they “abhor justice, pervert all equity;” they “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!’”
“Surely the Lord is with us”—how often throughout history have those in power assumed that their attainment of power somehow signifies God’s approval of all their decisions? The divine right of kings or the popular mandate of elected officials—Micah denounces these assurances as falsehoods which have separated rulers from real grounding in the ultimate truth of God.
The question of ultimate truth was just as live a question in Micah’s time as it is in ours. He prophesied God’s word to God’s people, people who desired to walk the way of covenant-faithfulness in a pluralistic world, in which Yahweh was far from the only option for religious devotion. Neighboring cultures worshiped all sorts of other gods and goddesses. As one commentator notes, “Sometimes [Israel] responded by destroying their neighbors, and sometimes they bought some of their idols just to be safe.”[ii]
In Micah’s time, there were conflicting claims about what it meant to be a worshipper of Yahweh or a loyal Judean, just as in our time there are conflicting ideologies about what a true Christian or a true American says, does, and stands for. Struggling to be faithful as God’s people
in our time and place, we also flip-flop between two strategies. On one hand, we try to wall from our presence those things, ideas or people we perceive as a danger to what “true” and “right, ” exercising fearful suspicion against anyone whose belief or practice doesn’t fit our tribal criteria.
On the other hand, we uncritically embrace every religious or spiritual idea as equally valid, without really taking the time to listen and learn either our own tradition or the others’. Neither strategy honors the wideness of God’s mercy or the particularity of God’s love.
Yes, God’s love is for everyone, everywhere, at work bringing justice and mercy in ways beyond our wildest imaginings. The idea that God’s grace is only for the relatively few people in the world who think, act, and worship like we do is an insult to God.
At the same time, the idea that all religions are equal, the tolerance of “all truth is relative,” can be a lazy excuse to avoid the necessary hard work of deep listening for God’s scandalously particular truth. One author notes, “Tolerance by itself is apathy. To say that all religions are equal is to say that no religion makes any difference.” [iii]
So, where does this leave us? How do we discern God’s will and align with it for faithful action in such a confusing world?
Of course we crave clarity. Of course we crave simplicity. Who doesn’t love three-step-formulas which promise unequivocal rightness? Who doesn’t want plain-spoken practical guidance we can rely on to get us from where we are, with whatever we feel is lacking in our lives, to where God’s people desire to dwell: where God abides with us in beauty, goodness, and Truth with a capital T.
But any rush to “simple truth” may stampede over deeper falsehoods. Premature clarity may be merely a knee-jerk fear-triggered reaction to something we’ve not taken time to understand. And shrugging relativism misses the incarnational wonder of God’s sharp and specific Word. One reality of human sin is that we are biased people who would rather put our trust in the devil we know than in the Christ who confounds us with the foolishness of the cross.
In Micah’s time, the Temple was crowded with people who showed off their “rightness” with God; yet Micah saw how the systems they’d created demonstrated an arrogant, uncaring attitude toward the poor and marginalized. Where, he asked, was true worship of the God who loves and protects the widow, the orphan and the stranger, the most vulnerable in the land? We face similar questions in our time, as we struggle to discern and navigate a clear path of faithful action amidst a deluge of biased information on all sides.
But by the grace of God, my friends, we have been given prophets, courageous truth-tellers like Micah. Micah’s words to God’s people then cut right through to God’s Truth for us now, reminding us of what we already know, offering us a clear measure by which to discern our own and others’ faithful words and actions: “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?”
Here we are reminded that God has already spoken, God has already shown Israel and us in numerous mighty acts of deliverance and grace who God is and what God desires. God’s people are created to speak and act in God’s image, the God who is consistently named as compassionate, merciful, slow to anger, and overflowing with gracious love.
Our God is a God of justice: alert to the voices of oppressed and vulnerable people—any person at risk of being treated as less than God’s child by whoever holds majority power.
Our God is a God of loving-kindness: a mercy that surpasses our imagination, a forgiveness that seems foolish to the powers of this world.
And what our God most deeply desires, my friends, is for us to walk humbly with God.
What does this mean? It means returning to our heart-knowing, getting close to the foundational ground of our existence, remembering the humus from which we humans were created and remembering the One who created us from it. From that vantage point, near to the muddy earth on which every human being stands at the foot of the cross, I understand that I am infinitely precious to God… and so is every one else. I have the clarity to truly value the inestimable gift of the life I have been given to share with others; I have the clarity to truly value the inestimable gift of life shared by all the others who inhabit this Earth beside me.
My friends, I believe that to “walk humbly with God” is the most important spiritual practice for Christians to focus on in our confusing and frightening times. Let’s make humility the virtue of this year! Practicing humility does not mean abdicating your convictions. By all means, stand up for what you believe is right! But do so, always ready to turn around, to fall to your knees, to return to the Ground of All Being and say, “Forgive me, I was wrong.”
Humility refuses to make “being right” an idol which substitutes itself for a real encounter with the surprising God in Jesus Christ, whose foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, whose weakness is stronger than human strength. Humility stands with trust and love upon the humus from which human creatures are created, and, I would add, humility regards everything—especially oneself—with a sense of humor.[iv]
Lastly, as another preacher notes, “…To walk humbly is not to be above someone or below someone, but rather with someone.” [v] My friends, we do not walk alone through the muddy paths of faith. Whatever burdens we carry in this world, we carry them together, all of us upheld by the unending grace and mercy of the God who walks with us and gives his life for us, the God whose power enlivens and empowers us, this day and always.
[ii] Brett Younger, “Homiletical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, 293.
[iii] Younger, 293.
[iv] Though it should be noted that “humor” does not actually have the same root as humus, human, and humility—it comes from a root more related to “humid”—having a quality of wetness rather than earthiness.