Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

This year, at least for many, Pentecost 20 is also Reformation Sunday, but we really need not change or manipulate the texts chosen for the former in order to observe the latter.

October 30, 2011

First Reading
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Commentary on Micah 3:5-12

This year, at least for many, Pentecost 20 is also Reformation Sunday, but we really need not change or manipulate the texts chosen for the former in order to observe the latter.

A primary goal of the Reformation was and is sola scriptura, so preaching any text — actually paying attention to a particular text — will always be a Reformation sermon. And Micah 3 will work especially well, since it pretty much disallows the kind of triumphalistic celebration of ourselves that we sometimes hear on or around October 31 (“Hey, Martin got it right, and so do we!”).

Nobody gets much right in Micah. He was one of those eighth-century prophets (along with First Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea) who had the unhappy call “to declare to Jacob his transgression, and to Israel his sin” (Micah 3:8). The problem, in Micah’s view (not to mention God’s) was the failure of God’s people to care adequately for — indeed, even to exploit — those whom Jesus (following in this same prophetic train) will eventually call “the least of these who are members of my family” (Matthew 25:40).

Alongside this lack of concern for social justice — especially by the rulers of the day — Micah criticized a kind of worship that simply mirrored or idolized the prevailing culture and whose preachers were all too willing to say whatever people wanted to hear. Twentieth-century biblical archeologist and historian Roland de Vaux uses, as a symbol of the eighth-century evils that enraged the prophets, his discoveries at the village of Tirsah (some seven miles northeast of Nablus), where, as he writes: “The houses of the tenth century B.C. are all of the same size and arrangement. Each represents the dwelling of a family which lived in the same way as its neighbors. The contrast is striking when we pass to the eighth century houses on the same site: the rich houses are bigger and better built and in a different quarter from that where the poor houses are huddled together.”1

As de Vaux notes, a “social revolution” separates these two centuries. Monarchy and temple had produced a distinction between the haves and have nots unlike anything known in an earlier agricultural Israel. There is probably no halting “progress,” then or now, but Micah makes clear that God will have no interest in preserving or protecting a form of “progress” that is built on the backs of some for the benefit of others.

For Micah, the chief sinners in all this are the establishment figures — rulers, priests, judges — who have the power to make things happen, but who wield that power unjustly and unequally. The preacher must be both bold and careful here: boldly declaring that, throughout the Bible, equal justice and care for the poor are not optional — and that the consequences are severe; but being careful not to embrace too quickly (or at least, giving “divine” sanction too quickly) to a particular program or party of social or political reform.

The prophets were not “social reformers” in that they pushed particular political agendas; they were more like fire alarms. Somebody has to yell, “Fire!” before others determine whether this particular conflagration requires a class A, B, or C extinguisher. The prophets are more the former than the latter, performing that essential first function of announcing that, no, we are not okay. In biblical faith, the alarm the prophets sound is God’s own, of course. People are dying here, and it is profoundly not okay.

And who (now) are the corrupt rulers and religious leaders to whom the prophet’s message must be applied? There are, of course, particular egregious examples that are properly denounced, but in a society and in churches where all have much more individual responsibility than that given folks of the eighth century B.C., Micah’s words must be addressed to all.

Micah was neither a Republican (though he based his arguments firmly in Israel’s conservative traditions) nor a Democrat (though he liberally denounced injustice to the downtrodden); indeed, Micah knew nothing of democratic government or global economics. The preacher of Micah’s texts is called not to be partisan, but to proclaim to all — in language as direct as that of this text — that God will not put up with injustice to the poor and self-satisfied arrogance of the wealthy and the powerful.

Republicans and Democrats may disagree about whether the primary responsibility for social and economic justice lies in the private or the public sector, but, again, the concern itself is not optional, at least not for those who read and believe the Bible. In our own society, where we all claim independence and share responsibility, the text is addressed to each of us, and it will let no private party and no public or governmental enterprise off the hook. God is Lord of all.

Similarly, as Micah attacks the “prophets” who lead people astray, while claiming for himself the presence of God’s spirit, the preacher will remind Christians that we claim and believe that God’s Spirit has now been poured out on all and that therefore all of us — that is, particularly believers — are addressed and challenged by this text.

One of Micah’s most surprising pronouncements is the destruction of Jerusalem itself (verse 12). A strong identification of God and temple, Jerusalem and the kingdom of God, had made many regard Zion as inviolable. God certainly could never attack God’s own city! Yet, Micah claims otherwise. Apparently, God’s city can cancel that identification by failing to follow the (rather simple) “rules” that God has given.

Doing “religion” properly will not suffice. Doing it improperly (that is, identifying religion and culture; serving whatever gods the culture has established) will be worse. One thing matters for Micah’s God, as we have heard so often: “He has told you, O mortal, 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?” (6:8).

Sounding the fire alarm is an essential duty of the preacher, but people will only respond if they know there is a secure place to flee. Thus, the sermon will have to assure them of God’s unqualified grace through Jesus Christ, in whom they will be able at last to give no thought for the morrow (Matthew 6:25-33), thus becoming free to give of themselves and their possessions to those in greater need. And again, for believers and for God, doing this is not an optional activity.

1Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, trans. John McHugh (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961) 72-73.