Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Micah prophesies during the second half of the 8th century BCE in Judah.

January 30, 2011

First Reading
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Commentary on Micah 6:1-8

Micah prophesies during the second half of the 8th century BCE in Judah.

The Back Story (or Historical Context)
He speaks in a context with no shortage of religious people. In fact, Micah describes widespread religiosity where people, especially religious leaders, are making a public show of how religious they are with loud lip service to God (Micah 3). It appears that business-as-usual religion has kept religious leaders self-satisfied and the powerful in power. For a messenger of God to enter this scene and proclaim judgment against the faithful must have been quite a shock.

Called on the Cosmic Carpet
In the opening verses, God lodges a legal case against Israel, calling upon all of creation to act as the jury. The mountains and foundations of the earth will hear God’s charges and Israel’s pleas. This is no petty squabble but set within a cosmic framework.

We are told that “the Lord has a controversy with his people.” We don’t get a list of transgressions in these verses, but earlier, chapter 3 lays out a host of sins and later verses in chapter 6 supply specifics: “your wealthy are full of violence, your inhabitants speak lies” (verse 12).

We hear God’s plaintive repetition, “O my people,” in verses 3 and 5, as God tries to understand what has gone wrong. As God reviews the divine-human relationship so far, there is implied judgment of the people as contrasted to God’s faithfulness. We get a salvation history of sorts, where God enumerates “the saving acts of the Lord” (verses 4-5):

  • God delivered them from slavery in Egypt
  • gave them leaders (Moses, Aaron, Miriam)
  • blessed them through the foreign priest Balaam even against his own king’s wishes
  • and brought them into the promised land (from Shittim to Gilgal).

Each of these acts is a full story in its own right, and each story reveals the chronic unfaithfulness of the people. These brief two verses serve to remind the people who this God is. This is the God who hears the cries of the people and brings them out of slavery. This is the God who will use even the outsider to bring blessings. This is the God who shows compassion and mercy when the people fall. Even the people’s idolatry and injustice cannot prevent this God from acting. This is the God who is faithful no matter what. The entire creation stands witness to this God made manifest in these acts.

The People Reply
Now the people reply (verses 6-7). The question “with what shall I come before the Lord?” is tantamount to an admission of guilt. There is no attempt to counter God’s claims, and no evidence is brought forth to defend themselves from God’s accusations.  The people quickly revert to familiar formulae: sacrificial offerings to make up for their transgressions. This response only reinforces the pattern of showy religiosity that Micah has already condemned, especially from leaders who look to their own interests (3: 11). Micah would expect such false leaders to turn first to conspicuous acts of sacrifice, as though the problem is appeasing God rather than changing their own behavior.  Micah makes it clear that there will be no more business-as-usual in the religion department without a change of heart and life. 

The go-to response here is to appease God through a form of score-keeping that tries to put a price tag on God’s mercy.  What payment will it take to get God off our backs? Burnt offerings? Thousands of rams? My firstborn? How can we even the scoreboard? But Micah isn’t buying it. We can’t just write a check.

No More Business-as-Usual
Micah contrasts this knee-jerk score-keeping to the path God has already given, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good” (verse 8). The entire Torah has already given God’s people the path of life. Moreover, Micah stands in a line of prophets who have reminded the people, over and over, of this path. Micah offers a summation of what God requires, at once more simple and more difficult than keeping ritual practices: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

To enact justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, are not single acts that can be checked off the list and left behind. On an individual and social scale, in ways large and small, this is a way of life. Periodic nods to equity do not constitute a faithful life, Micah tells us. We cannot only observe racial membership quotas on committees in place of seeking racial justice. We cannot send checks for disaster relief and avoid examining the lifestyles that contribute, at least in part, to some natural disasters. We cannot do hunger walks and refuse to change our consumerist lifestyles. We cannot confess with our lips on Sunday morning and hold grudges at work on Monday.

Rather than offer God thousands of rams, Micah calls us to offer a thousand daily acts of love for each other and the world God loves. “Walking humbly with God” means knowing our bent to self-righteousness. We cannot “play church” or frame our religious life as a game where we keep God in check by performing prescribed duties. The life of faith is indeed a walk that reorients heart and life.

A Caution
It is easy from these familiar verses in Micah to set up the false dichotomy between ritual practice and genuine faith, between piety and social justice, or between “being religious” and “being spiritual” to use a common refrain.  Nowhere does Micah tell people to stop observing ritual practices or to stop being religious. The problem is not religion in itself. The problem is using ritual practice to excuse ourselves from the divine demands of justice and mercy. Equally troublesome is the opposite, excusing ourselves from communal practices of prayer and worship on the grounds of social justice work. Either extreme fails to be whole.

We should also be wary of another common misuse of this verse, namely, to excuse one from any corporate faith at all. The emphasis on “walking humbly with my God,” in verse 8 can become the manifesto of privatized religion, a church of one.