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.

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