Micah 3:5-12; 4:1-5; 6:8
3:5 Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing into their mouths. 6 Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision, and darkness to you, without revelation. The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; 7 the seers shall be disgraced, and the diviners put to shame; they shall all cover their lips, for there is no answer from God. 8 But as for me, I am filled with power, with the spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin. 9 Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob and chiefs of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, 10 who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong! 11 Its rulers 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! No harm shall come upon us.” Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.
4:1 In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, 2 and many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 3 He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; 4 but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken. 5 For all the people walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.
6:8 He has told you, O man, 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?
The biblical and the secular are often at odds. As much as the biblical narrative speaks of the glory of the monarchy under David, secular history barely mentions his name. Theologically, Israel saw herself as the chosen people. Secularly, not so much. The same events viewed through a theological lens are reported very differently than those same events viewed through a secular lens. The same, of course, is true when we are contrasting our desires with God’s vision.
The 8th century BCE were troubling times for Israel. She was relatively secure and autonomous but Assyria loomed as an aggressive threat to the North. Before the century was over, Israel was defeated by Assyria (722 BCE) and the people sent into exile. Micah prophesied in these days of false security.
The book of Micah itself, is organized by three alternating patterns of condemnation followed by expressions of hope. The reading today captures the jarring juxtaposition. Micah’s critical brush is wide. He criticizes every layer of authority in the kingdom (rulers, chiefs, priests and prophets) for their self centeredness and entitlement. These were the people who were responsible for the care of the people but instead, systematically discriminated and exploited. These behaviors were an affront to God and could only lead to disaster. Ultimately, Micah predicts the ruin of Israel—”Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.”
Self centeredness is an issue in every generation. Human beings are constantly looking for an edge—and the church is no exception. We seek to ‘advance’ ourselves and use all manner of self justifications. Throughout the ages the church has been a willing participant. When the first century church attempted to live communally, we read that there were some who took advantage (Corinthians), in the medieval period, grace was sold as indulgences, today there are any number or churches that offer ‘blessings’ for contributions. Likewise, there are currently a number of health care plans marketed to believers that collect premiums but do not actually cover medical expenses. Subscribers are told ‘to just trust the Lord.” NYT, January 2, 2020).
Secularly, we are not really surprised at the never ending headlines reporting political malfeasance. There is bribery, corruption and stacking the deck for personal and political gain. We may be indignant—depending upon whose ox is being gored—but we are not surprised. Interpersonally, as well as nationally, more often than not, retaliation is the norm. If we are injured, we have a right to hurt back. In fact, it is smarter to hit back harder to ‘protect’ ourselves. To do otherwise is weakness.
In such a world, it is naive to trust in God outside of a prayer closet. In real life, people will take advantage and people will hurt you. We would be fools not to protect our own interests. This was the very predicament that led the 12 tribes of Israel to seek a king. The nations of the ancient world respected power and Israel had none. They yearned for position and stature in the world. They wanted what we all want—to feel safer in a dangerous world. The theological danger however, is that we will begin to believe that our self interests match God’s.
“Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us.” This was the fatal error of the rulers, priests and prophets in Micah’s time. They were the chosen people and ‘if God is with us, who can be against us?” What a huge mistake! Instead of God’s promises leading to gratitude and service, they were used to justify entitlement and discrimination. Micah warned that such thinking leads to disastrous consequences. Instead of having immunity, we learn all too soon that we are still profoundly vulnerable.
The owners of the collapsed condo in Florida are suffering in large part because repairs cost money—a lot of money. The threat to the whole structure was in the future, the threat to individual budgets was immediate. But the hard truth is that the only way to keep our wealth is to die before the building collapses. And the only way to sustain life, is to proactively protect all of life. It is hard to respond to threats to the whole when they require self sacrifice. Nationally we will argue about infrastructure and globally about our environment—but both are hard sells if individually we are doing ok. We do not want to face our personal vulnerability. We will create a hundred reasons why such regard can wait. We want to believe we are protected even as the building (or planet) we are living in is failing for lack of regard. That is Micah’s prophecy to the 8th century Israelites and Micah’s prophecy to us today. This is perhaps oversimplified but it represents a stark contrast between secular and spiritual values.
When we pull this down to ordinary relationships, it is not ok to hurt people because we have been hurt. As crazy as that sounds, retaliation only leads to retaliation. When I see couples in conflict, I tell them that if they are going to work with me they must agree that it is not ok to hurt one another. In real life of course, they will hurt each other. But such behavior calls for confession and remorse—not righteous indignation and defensiveness. If that is too hard and sometimes it is, it is better to split than continue a pattern of hurtful living. For some it is a reminder, for others it is a shift in foundational values but if learned, allows room for reconciliation. Balancing individual needs and the relationship itself is always a difficult balancing act. Micah comes down solidly against putting self first at the expense of the whole.
Then, without missing a beat, Micah praises Israel as a beacon to the world—”For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Out of the same people he has condemned, he promises that the remnant that remains will be the agents of his Word. “In that day, says the Lord, I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away, and those whom I have afflicted. 7 The lame I will make the remnant, and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the Lord will reign over them in Mount Zion now and forevermore.” (Micah 4:6-7) It is very easy to imagine that God grants love to particular groups—the Jews as the chosen people and/or Christians because they follow Christ. But God is not about any national group, God is about equity and inclusion. God chooses the remnant—the outcasts, exiles and the fallen of Israel out of the same love that God chose the vagabond slaves in Egypt.
Jonah promises that God is the same. This is good news but in real life, it is very disturbing. God’s tent is beyond our imagining and includes people we would not sit next to, much less love. Our defenses and explanations for the discrimination in the world are silly, if not offensive to God. We worry about who gets saved and who belongs. Micah writes that God’s instruction is for all people. God’s vision is that we use the energy we put into our weapons to destroy life be put into instruments that support life. There is room for other beliefs, other ways to God. We do not have to understand how this can be, we just need to realize that God’s desire for us is far richer than anything we could imagine. “For all the people walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.”
The vision is probably too great for us but it is God’s vision nonetheless. Micah makes our individual jobs a lot simpler. He says in 6:8—”He has told you, O man, 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?”
Quit trying to figure out who deserves what. Know that if you insist upon your own way, you can only alienate and divide. Let God’s vision challenge your own. It is a dangerous path but it leads to life—for all of us. Let it be so.