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.
Here is a biblical soundbite that we like to use. It sounds good and is what we all aim to do in theory. It goes alongside the other soundbite we use from Micah at Christmas:
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.
However, perhaps these verses from chapter 6 are not soundbite but a summary of how we should live as Christian people. They seem to be along the same lines as Jesus’ summary of the law when he was asked:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Matt 22:37
The connection is clear: to love God fully is to walk in humble dependence upon him and to do what he requires, which is to love our neighbour as ourselves. And if you are not sure who our neighbour is, then refresh your memory by reading the parable of the Good Samaritan. This broadens it out from the person next door and the immediate community of God’s people, to people beyond. In our global society, shrunk by travel and the internet, and our dependence on goods from overseas, our neighbour could be half way round the world.
When exploring the second part of our strapline about being community focussed, this gets a bit mind boggling. However, before we get overwhelmed, let’s remember that church has always seen people further afield as our neighbour; hence the numerous ways in which Christian people are involved in mission. Let’s begin thinking about this verse by looking at its context and then applying it to ourselves as the community at Emmanuel.
Micah identifies his time period as that of Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah. It is the time of the rise of the Assyrians, a powerful, vicious and merciless nation. Judah sought alliances with other powers (Babylon and Egypt) to stand against this mighty enemy, but even their combined forces were no match for this super power. It is the time of the siege of Jerusalem when Sennacharib taunted the people of Israel and Hezekiah called out to the Lord. He is preaching to the people and bringing God’s message that the reason they found themselves in this plight was they were not doing what was asked of them in 6:8; in fact they were doing the reverse. Yes there would be the promised shepherd of the people spoken about in chapter 5, but before that there would be the humiliation of their king and they would feel abandoned by God.
As we move into chapter 6, we have a change of tone and focus. It moves into a courtroom style scene as God brings his plea before the people. In verses 3-5 God asks them to account for their unfaithfulness and reminds them of his actions on their behalf throughout their existence. God reminds them of the time he frustrated Balak King of Moab through the blessing of Balaam. He reminds them how led them from the disgrace of Shittim to the victory of Gilgal. The faithfulness of God is contrasted with the unfaithfulness of Israel.
Micah answers the plea with the question: With what shall I come before the Lorand bow down before the exalted God? . The response to God’s plea seems to reach farcical proportions, going from the possible to the impossible. Then it takes a serious turn, ‘Should I sacrifice my firstborn son?’ No is the reply. We are not to be like all the other nations. God is not like the human made gods of the other religions in which people try to make payment for sin. All he asks is that we live as he called us to. It is not rocket science. It wasn’t then and isn’t now – although we do tend to make it complicated. God is not asking them to atone for their sin, or us – only he can do that. He is asking that we walk humbly with him and live in justice and mercy, just as we have been shown mercy in the justice of God.
The first thing asked of the people is that they act justly. The reality was very different. Read 2:1-2; 3:1-2. This avaricious and acquisitive behaviour is denounced in Amos and other prophets. They had become a materialistic society in which money, wealth and luxury talked and the gap between rich and poor grew. The prophets were the mouth- piece used to challenge Judah and Israel. They challenged the community of God’’s people, because they were not living as a community modelling a different way of life, but as materialistic individuals out for what they could get. The prophets were surely not the only people who saw what was going on, but whether through expediency, fear or helplessness, no one seemed to be challenging society’s values and direction.
In our society we can understand the feeling of helplessness in the face of the economic machine. We can understand withdrawal from engagement and waiting for the rapture. However, that is not what we are called to as God’s people. If we work together as a community, then we needn’t be helpless and we can encourage each other in living as Christ would have us live.
The second thing asked of the people is that they show mercy. This can be expressed as loving kindness and was exactly what wasn’t being shown to their fellow Jews. Instead there was exploitation and cheating in order to advance increase their wealth and comfort. Loving kindness towards brothers and sisters was totally missing. Mercy for the oppressed was absent. When it came to wealth and comfort there was a hardness of heart and indifference to the needs of others. We can experience this when we are bombarded with the various situations across the world, and so we protect ourselves through not listening, assuming we can do nothing, or not being prepared to have our lives impacted.
When John the Baptist came preaching, he gave some very practical advice to those who wanted to know what they should do.
“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “What should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” Luke 3
This was showing justice and mercy. Some of those asking were despised people, seeking to live out the repentance they had expressed in baptism. They had heard the call of John to bear good fruit or face judgement. and responded.
The final thing the people are asked to do is walk humbly with their God. It is a re-orientation of life. It is what is expressed in 4:2:
Many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
For the nations to do this would require a complete change of heart. Whatever others may do their commitment, and the commitment of God’s people should have been, to walk in his ways.
The Hebrew word for ethics is ‘halacha’: this means ‘walking’. It is a description of how we are to live in day to day life – walking with our God. Interestingly, Jesus’ invitation to others most frequently was to walk with him, to follow him. It means to see what he was doing and do likewise. Who is the God we are to walk with and learn from? The one who has shown justice and mercy in entering the world through Jesus Christ; who has compassion for the outcast the widow and the orphan; who was willing to sacrifice the glory of heaven and become the sin bearer.
So where do we begin as a community focussed people? We need take heed of what happened to the people of Israel. They became selfish and copied the culture around. Personal wants and comfort took priority. Worship of God became the social/cultural thing to do. To pick up on the parable of the Good Samaritan again, it is easy to walk by on the other side with our eyes averted. However, a community focussed church doesn’t do that and realises that our worship involves in showing justice and mercy.
What could we do as the community at Emmanuel?
- We can think about our travel and whether or not the journey to and from church could be shared, or we could use other means.
- We could think about our use of heating. Should we put up with a cooler chapel in order to burn less fuel?
- Could we install solar panels on the roof at the back of the church?
- Could we be more rigorous in our waste sorting and reduce the amount of plastic or throw away materials we use at church events? Do we have people willing to become the promoters and encouragers in this area?
- Could we challenge each other and hold each other accountable for these things in relation to our own homes?
- Are we prepared to be discomforted in order to show loving kindness to others?
Now you might ask what this has to do with justice and mercy and walking humbly with God. What we know is that the careless actions we take have an impact on communities far away, whether it is our pollution that is carried through the air or our waste that is transported to other nations or dumped in the sea. Frequently it is the poorer nations who feel the effects of our actions. Do we care enough?
Are we willing to get involved when decisions are being made that negatively impact the weak and vulnerable? It would be great if someone could enable us to tackle issues of justice in this country, drawing people together and informing. When the overseas aid budget comes under pressure, could we be proactive in supporting it? The fundamental question we need to ask ourselves is, to what extent are we prepared to have our lifestyle changed in order to bring justice and show mercy to others? Will we be prepared to pay more for our goods so those who produce them get a fairer wage?
Questions of justice, mercy and walking humbly with our God have no value if they don’t move from words to actions. If we read the gospels we have the example of Jesus to follow. If we read the Hebrew Scriptures we have the example of the people of Israel to learn from. The community of God’s people takes seriously the Word of God, so that we are good stewards of God’s creation and help people experience the Kingdom now, and meet the King of the Kingdom so they can be with him for eternity.
To show justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God was something the community of Israel had lost sight of; they had become materialistic. In our age it is very easy to do the same. As a God centred, community focussed body of Christians, how are we going to avoid doing the same?