4.05.2012

What Does the Lord Require: Another Look at Micah 6

In a well-known passage, the prophet Micah writes in chapter 6 of his book, verses 6-8:
With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Of course, we hardly ever hear the rest of the passage in which God levels a charge against his people for dishonest gain, violence, and deceit.  These days, Christians can be seen defending such things in an appeal to a "free market," capitalism, or national defense.  This is despite the fact that the Bible has hundreds of warnings against such things and calls for a just and merciful society.  Such passages are often directed at the powers that be, holding them accountable for how the most vulnerable are treated.  Here's just a sampling:  Exodus 23:1-12, Nehemiah 5:1-6, Isaiah 58:1-10, Jeremiah 22:3-5, Lamentations 3:34-36, Amos 5:10-24.  I'll return to this shortly.

In Micah 6:8, we have what I call the "triple play."  The three things Micah mentions that "the Lord requires" of us can be thought of as the three major aspects of our discipleship as Christians.  It's our universal call to ministry, given alongside the warning that our worship is meaningless if we are not actually obeying God (Micah 6:6).  However, the order in which Micah lists them is the opposite of the priority that they are often given.

What Micah mentions last is to "walk humbly with your God," that is, personal devotion and spirituality:  our scripture reading and prayer, church attendance, spiritual disciplines, being attuned to God's presence, etc.  This would also include the necessity of Christian community in our lives for support, accountability, etc (Hebrews 10:24-25).  However, it is unfortunate how often the Christian life is reduced to this aspect alone.  We seem to spend a lot of time on this area, which is certainly not a bad thing, as long as it's not to the detriment of the other two areas.  But one can immediately see the problem when walking into Christian bookstores, or perusing the "Christian living" section of any bookstore.  It's all about our own personal walk with God, our own spirituality.  Again, this is certainly important, and perhaps even a starting point, but it's only one part of our discipleship.  (Our "walk with God" is not always that "humble," either).

In the middle, Micah calls us to "love mercy."  The Hebrew word translated "mercy" is hesed, one of those words that is notoriously difficult to translate because of its rich meaning.  The most common lexicon definition is "loving-kindness," that is, actions that spring out of love and concern.  The word is commonly used in reference to God and his stance towards his people.  A good correlate in the New Testament Greek would be splagnizomai, the word for "compassion."  So this is the area of our life as Christians that concerns acts of mercy and helping those who need help.  Jesus gave one of the more famous examples in the story of The Good Samaritan when he was asked, "Who is my neighbor?"  "Loving mercy" would include things like sheltering the homeless and feeding the hungry, helping a community hit by a natural disaster, foster parenting, cooking meals for bereaved families, or anything else that addresses the needs of the vulnerable.  The possible list is long.

But listed first is Micah's call to "act justly" or to "do justice" (either translation is correct).  This is the stuff that Glenn Beck once told his minions to run from.  As I pointed out above, concerns about social justice are all over the Bible.  But it is in this area of our discipleship that so many individual Christians and churches face a dismal deficit.  Not only is this aspect of our faith and scripture largely neglected, I've found that many believers don't even know what it is.  We don't have a context for it, and we have to be taught to see it (just as I was).

Social justice, in my view, is a two-sided coin.  The first side is empowerment.  You may have heard the old proverb:  "Give a man a fish, he eats for a day.  Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime."  Empowerment is not only a part of doing justice but it's also an essential partner to "loving mercy."  Acts of charity and mercy, if not accompanied by a justice ministry of empowerment, can actually make the problem worse by creating a cycle of dependency.  While we certainly must work to meet immediate needs, those needs will just keep recycling if people are not given the tools necessary to break the cycle.  There is a tremendous need in most communities for mentoring relationships in which people can learn things like cooking, budgeting, parenting, job interview skills, etc.

The other side of the justice coin is that of fair societal structures; working on the policy level for fairness and equal opportunity.  This is where we have to take the proverb about the fish further:  "...teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime...but only if the people who own the water are putting fish in it."  Most churches totally neglect this area of ministry.  As I said, many don't even have a mental framework for what this is, and to make matters worse, conservative media outlets are working hard to convince people that social justice = communism or that it is a partisan, democratic agenda.  No.  It's a biblical agenda.  There also seems to be an effort to spread hatred and contempt for the poor, and people seem to think that poor = lazy (I address this fully in a different blog post).  This Micah passage, after verse 8, goes on to address some of the things the people were doing that were creating an unfair society and putting the poor or vulnerable at a disadvantage.  Justice issues are on a macro-level.  They are systemic problems and blame cannot often be placed on one individual or isolated group.  There are many examples of such problems in society, some of which I address in other blog posts as well as a page dedicated to such issues.  Examples include: wages and the income gap, predatory financial practices, immigration, equal access to things like education and healthcare, etc.

Here's a helpful illustration I gleaned from The DART Center that explains not only why justice ministry is needed but also why it requires cooperation and the efforts of many people together.  We all have personal relationships.  This includes our family and friends.  When we are being treated unfairly in these relationships, we have quite a bit of say and power to correct it.  At least, we have access to the source of the problem.  We also have voluntary relationships; groups and organizations we relate to by choice.  This includes church, civic organizations, businesses that deal in products or services, etc.  In these relationships, we don't have as much power and influence to demand that we are treated fairly, but we still have some.  If nothing else, we can withdraw our business or otherwise remove ourselves from the situation.  But we can't do this in our relationships of necessity, the third category.  Relationships of necessity would include government, schools, utility companies, the healthcare system and, perhaps to some extent, Wall Street and our place of employment.  These are the entities with which we must be associated if we want to survive in society.  However, if we are being treated unfairly by these groups, we are powerless to correct it.  We must gain a position of power ourselves to correct injustice in these areas, but it's virtually impossible for those being oppressed to do so on their own.  That's where we come in.  Christians are called to come together and speak truth to power.  One of the best and most famous examples of how this can happen is the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.  As Frederick Douglass said, "Power concedes nothing without demand.  It never has, and it never will."

This is Micah's "triple play."  May we act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.  May we become well-rounded disciples in holistic ministry, not neglecting any of these three.

4.01.2012

Faith Has Feet

What follows are two different versions of a conversation between Jesus and a rich man.  Only one of them actually appears in the Bible.  Do you know which one it is?

Version #1


A certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’”  “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” he said.  When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”  When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Version #2

A certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  “I'm not just good," Jesus said, "my name is really above the name 'God' when you get down to it.  If you want to have eternal life, accept me as your Lord and Savior.”  “I do believe in you!" the ruler replied.  "I accepted you into my life when I was young!”  When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “Well, we have to be sure about this.  You need to be sure you have a 'saving knowledge' of me.  You can't be Catholic or Episcopalian or anything like that, and certainly not Mormon.  You have to be a Bible-believing Christian, using and insisting on words that don't appear in the Bible like 'inerrancy' and 'Trinity.'  You have to have prayed the 'sinners prayer,' and you have to affirm that you have a 'personal relationship' with me."  "Sounds great!" the man said.  "I'm a true believer!  By the way, I don't have to give my hard-earned money away to the poor, do I?"

Version #1, of course, is the version that actually appears in scripture.  So why does version #2 sound so familiar?  This story appears in all of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), and you will search in vain for the place where Jesus gives the common, evangelical answer: "Accept me as your Lord and Savior."  Not only that, but there is another passage in Luke 10:25-37 where a different man asks the same question: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Greek: zoen aionion.  Literally, "life age").  In this instance, Jesus asks the man what he reads in the law.  The man answers in the way any good Jewish "expert in the law" would by quoting Deuteronomy 6:5 ("Love the Lord your God...") and Leviticus 19:18 ("Love your neighbor...").  Jesus says, "You have answered correctly.  Do this and you will live."  When the man presses him further and asks, "Who is my neighbor," Jesus proceeds to tell him the well-known story of the Good Samaritan.  Today, this is a beloved story, but for Jesus' Jewish listeners, it would have been an appalling story.  Samaritans were not just disliked for religious differences; there had been bloodshed.  They were the enemy (Amy-Jill Levine, Biblical Archaeology Review, Nov/Dec 2011).  If Jesus were here to tell the story today, it might well have been called "The Good Terrorist."

This idea that Christianity is about what we believe has gone unchallenged for too long.  Western Evangelicalism continues to relegate Christianity to the realm of abstract belief.  Being a Christian, we're taught, boils down to what you believe and know.  If you believe and know the right things about Jesus, you are "sanctified" by God and "justified" before God, something that you prove has happened by knowing the right religious lingo, listening to Christian music, and going to church more often.  After one "gets saved," it is assumed that they now live with certainty regarding God and their beliefs (instead of the experience of wrestling with God, like Jacob, when God actually messes up our life and has us let go of things once dearly held).

One day I was looking around at different church websites, and ran across a bio for a senior pastor of a non-denominational mega-church.  It talked about how he had grown up in the Catholic Church but, through an experience at camp, came to a "saving knowledge" of Jesus Christ.  He had found the right version of Christianity.

Let me be very clear:  there is no such thing as "saving knowledge."  At least, not according to Jesus.  No amount or type of knowledge saves us.

First of all, it's a tad arrogant - if not ignorant - to take one small version of Christianity out of the 2000 years and hundreds of denominations of the Christian faith and suggest that you finally got it right.

But the bigger problem is this:  Jesus, as he is presented in the gospels, painted a much different and more shocking picture of what "faith" is; what it meant to follow him.  His theology (or the lack thereof?) shook up the religious establishment of his day, and it needs to do the same thing in the 21st century.

Faith is not what we believe; it is not intellectual assent to a doctrine.  There is no faith but embodied faith.  Faith has feet.  There have been a lot of debates through the history of the church about the relationship between faith and works.  Even the biblical authors appear to disagree on whether people like Abraham were saved by faith (Hebrews 11) or by works (James 2:14-26).  But upon closer inspection, and especially upon considering the life and teachings of Jesus, I believe it becomes clear that "faith" and "works" are not even separate concepts that we can consider individually or debate the role of.  It's not even that the two "go together" but that they are one thing.  This is revealed even in the language:  in the New Testament Greek, the word pistos meant both "faith" and "faithfulness."  The verb form is often translated "believe."  If you believed, you were faithful; and if you were faithful, you believed.  In fact, it was the separation of religious belief and action that Jesus constantly criticized among the religious leaders of his day (see especially Matthew 23:1-32).  There is no faith but embodied faith.  If I have faith, that means that my real, material, everyday existence is being transformed by the ways of Christ.  And if my real, material, everyday existence is being transformed by the ways of Christ, that means I have faith.  Thus, when people say that they have "lost their faith," they usually mean that they have found themselves unable to give assent to certain propositions or doctrines.  They rarely, if ever, mean that they've lost the kind of faith Jesus called for, and quite ironically, many people I know who have lost belief in some religious doctrine often simultaneously began to live more faithfully; more like Jesus.

Before I argue my case from scripture, let's consider this by way of simple examples.  If I told you that I believe a chair will hold me up but refuse to sit in it, do I really believe it?  If I said that I trust my wife and believe she is faithful to me but I constantly check her phone and email or insist on knowing where she is at all times, do I really trust her?  In the same vein, when it comes to faith and belief, scripture puts it quite crudely:
"We know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands. Whoever says, “I know him,” but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did."  (1 John 2:3-6)
The distinction here is between abstract or intellectual belief versus manifest belief.  Such a disparity is not uncommon in us humans and we are sometimes not aware of it ourselves.  It makes for good humor, too.  There's a peanuts comic strip in which Linus says, "I love mankind; it's people I can't stand."  We may even consciously and sincerely think that we believe one thing, but the real belief - the real truth - can be found in our lived life.  I can say that I don't support large corporations that neglect human rights and ethical production, but if I say it while strolling the aisles at Walmart, my actual belief is on display, even though it may escape even me.  (Or I'm also reminded of all the people covered by Medicare who showed up at the rallies a few years ago saying, "No government healthcare").  Abstract or intellectual belief is meaningless.  Jesus was only interested in manifest belief.  For him there was no faith but embodied faith.  And he made this clear again and again.

In Matthew 21:28-32, Jesus told a parable of two sons, both of whom were told to go work in the field that day.  One said he would but did not, and other said he would not but did; the point being that the one who actually worked in the field was obedient.  It's almost as if Jesus says in this parable, "You could say no to me to my face and claim you don't believe in me, but if you turn around and follow my ways, you do believe."  Does Christianity boil down to our confessional belief?  Such passages suggest that it does not.  Unbeknownst to many, C.S. Lewis's theology gravitated in this direction later in his life.  The clearest example, funny enough, is a quote from Aslan in the The Last Battle, the final book in the Chronicles of Narnia:
"Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me...if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath's sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves."
In Matthew 7:21, Jesus said, "Not everyone who says to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my father who is in heaven."  On several occasions, Jesus used the analogy of a tree and its fruit, saying that you know what something is by what it produces (Matthew 3:10, 7:17-19, 12:33).  In John 13:35, Jesus said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another."  When Jesus called his first followers, he said to them..."Believe in me"?  No, he said, "Follow me."  These examples only begin to scratch the surface.  Perhaps the most disturbing is Jesus' discourse about "the sheep and the goats" in Matthew 25:31-46.  Here, Jesus seems to be referring to the end of the age or his return, and he says that he will separate the sheep from the goats; putting some people on his right and some on his left.  How are they separated?  By who was a Christian and who wasn't?  No, there is not a single mention of anyone's confessional beliefs.  They are separated according to who fed the hungry, quenched the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned.

Goodness gracious.  Jesus doesn't even know his 4 spiritual laws.

Over and over again, all of scripture - and Jesus in particular - tries to pound home the idea that there is no faith but embodied faith.  We are what we produce.  Jesus showed no interest in confessional belief; in fact, he often seemed worried it would get in the way.  When Peter confessed that he believed that Jesus was the Messiah, one of the things Jesus charged him to do was to keep it a secret (Matthew 16:20).

How often does our Christian faith really transform our material existence?  How does it affect what kind of car or house we buy?  Does it affect how we budget our time and money?  Who we associate with?  Are Christians known by our radical self-sacrificial lifestyle or the way we love our enemies?  As Thomas A. Tarrants III of the C.S. Lewis Institute put it, "Reams of research confirm the simple observation that in many ways the lives of most professing Christians are not much different from their nonbelieving neighbors."

Some may accuse me of preaching "works righteousness" or "salvation by works."  Not at all.  The scriptures are clear that this is not true as well.  Paul was right in Ephesians 2:8-10 that "it is by grace we are saved, through faith..."  The problem is in how we have defined "faith" as confessional belief.  We've also, through the old revivalism, switched the order of Ephesians 2:8.  Look carefully:  the only prerequisite for salvation is God's "grace."  "Faith" is the conduit; the means by which.  Evangelicals have long preached it the other way.  We also have to keep reading to verse 10:  "For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works..."  Some may quote to me other verses which seem to call for the confessional belief type of faith - "believing in God's son."  One might be John 3:16.  The first thing to remember about John 3:16 is that, when Jesus said it, he was talking to a well-established Jewish leader - a religious insider - not some prostitute by the side of the road.  It was in the context of "being born again" (John 3:3).  Nicodemus's problem was not that he didn't believe, but that he didn't have real, transformative faith that had flipped his world upside down. We also have to make sure we keep reading past John 3:16:  "Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light..." (John 3:19-21, emphasis mine).  Or someone might quote John 14:6: "I am the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father but by me."  This verse is often used to argue the exclusiveness of the religion of Christianity when it actually merely asserts the authority and deciding power of Jesus (a key difference).  But again, we have to keep reading.  Look at verse 12:  "Whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing..."

Faith has feet.

In Romans 10:9, Paul writes: "If you declare with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."  Clearly, this is a call for confessional belief, right?  Not so fast.  Context and language are important.  The word for "saved" (Greek: sodzo) had a much more literal meaning than it has in Christian theology today.  It was the word you would have used to describe someone being "saved" from drowning, for example.  Salvation was something to be experienced - beginning in the here and now.  Plus, this verse was written to the Christians in Rome, and in Rome, it was very politically dangerous to say something like "Jesus is Lord," because such a title was reserved for Caesar.  "Caesar is Lord" was a common greeting, and to say that anyone else was Lord was seditious.  Thus, this verse in Romans 10:9 is not a prescription of the elements necessary for eternal salvation but a promise of protection for the Roman believers as they proclaimed their allegiance to Christ.

It's not that confessional belief is not important. In fact, it's important to name our faith and our allegiance. It keeps us grounded. But the problem comes when we use confessional belief as the definition or proof of faith.

Faith has feet.  There is no faith but embodied faith.  Salvation begins today.  The call of Christ is to lose our life in order to find it (Matthew 10:39), to find the joy and purpose in following the one who taught radical love and grace.  That's what faith is.  And I don't know about you, but I don't want to be among the crowd of Pharisees to whom Jesus said, “Woe to you...hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are." (Matthew 23:15)

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This post is adapted from its original version as a spoken sermon, and the ideas expressed herein were influenced by the work of theologian and philosopher Peter Rollins.