Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor …

Miner carrying sulphur
"A miner carrying sulphur at Kawah Ijen, Java," image by Matt Paish via Flickr licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

November 2, 2014

First Reading
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Commentary on Micah 3:5-12

It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor …

… If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”1

Indeed, many might side with Archbishop Tutu’s perspective and claim that it is, in fact, better to speak against injustice than it is to remain silent. The prophet Micah would certainly join the forces of those called to speak against injustice, and Micah 3:5-12 presents strong evidence supporting that claim.

Micah 3:5-12 can be divided into two sections. The first section is a harsh indictment against prophets (verses 5-8), while the second section is a broader condemnation of the elephants, per say (verses 9-12): rulers, priests, and prophets who have oppressed the innocent. In the first section, Micah lashes out with a specific attack on prophets who preference the wealthy over the poor. The preferential treatment, according to Micah, typically occurs in the form of delivering messages that please the wealthy and then delivering opposite messages to those who cannot fork out the cash. In these instances, the prophets aim to please people, not deliver the message of the Lord (verses 5-6).

At times, the method of receiving and delivering messages was the issue with prophets in Micah’s day. In other words, some prophets received a “word from the Lord” in a dream or vision, while others received a message by hearing the voice of the Lord audibly. The method of reception is of no concern to Micah here. Rather, he is concerned with the mode of delivering the message. Specifically, he is concerned with an ethical issue: prophets who prostitute themselves for what the people want.

Not only does Micah speak out against these prophets, but he also declares punishment. Night will set. Darkness will be more prominent than light, and the prophets who have “led God’s people astray” will stop hearing from the Lord. They will experience shame and their lips will be silenced. Broadly speaking, it is impossible for them to get away with falsehood. Consequences exist for their actions, and punishment will happen (verse 7).

Following his judgment against other prophets, Micah turns the conversation to validate the message he has just delivered (verse 8). He squares his own words in the biblical tradition, in other words, that tradition which pays attention to the voice of God. He is unique. He is filled with power, with justice, with might, and most importantly, the Spirit of the Lord.

After affirming himself, Micah turns once again with a clarion call that expresses outrage not only at prophets, but also rulers, priests, and every area of society (verse 9). Rulers are ruling for bribes; priests are teaching for a fee, and prophets are performing their duty for money. While they claim to do these duties in the name of the Lord (verse 11), Micah believes otherwise. Their statements “Surely the Lord is with us,” are merely pious ways of avoiding Micah’s harsh words to them. “They use part of their religious heritage in a perverse way to avoid accountability and to reject the words of one of God’s true prophets.”2 But, they can’t get away with this. Micah declares the whole of Jerusalem is perverted because of their poor leadership, and punishment is coming to everyone by way of God.

Of course, punishment doesn’t happen when Micah expects it or how Micah expects it. The Babylonians demolished Jerusalem in the time of Jeremiah, but this destruction was delayed; it clearly wasn’t in Micah’s time. Furthermore, Jerusalem never found itself to be “a plowed field” or a “heap of ruins.” It might be said that because King Hezekiah heeded Micah’s words and repented, the Lord turned away the disaster. At least, this is how those heeding Jeremiah’s words interpreted Micah’s prediction (Jeremiah 26:18-19).3

What might all of this mean for us? To return to the opening quote from Desmond Tutu, in this passage, Micah was anything but neutral in a situation of injustice. When the elephant was stomping the tail of the mouse, Micah chose to advocate for those who were suffering evils because of the work of leaders. Micah chose to criticize the wrong doings of others who were bringing pain to the innocent. And in Micah’s case, speaking out was better than remaining silent.

Furthermore, Micah’s voice, when heard through the predicament of Jerusalem, its leaders, and its people, shows that not all suffering is punishment for sin. Sometimes suffering is a “consequence of victimization and abuse by the wicked and powerful.”4 Any analysis of a cultural system where suffering occurs should be examined in totality: from the top down as well as from the bottom up.

Finally, this passage illustrates that any of us who speak against injustice should always ask the question of timing. Are the time, the place, and the message we are delivering appropriate to the situation, the people, and their place in life? It is clear that some in leadership were abusing their power and doing so in the name of the Lord. Their timing, their message, and the situations to which they were speaking were misguided, indirect, and therefore damaging. But, wise and discerning prophets like Micah, have the option to take another path: to speak against wrong, but to do so by bringing the right message at the right time.


1 Quoted in William P. Quigley, Ending Poverty As We Know It: Guaranteeing a Right to a Job at a Living Wage (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2003), 8.

2 Daniel J. Simundson, “The Book of Micah: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: Volume VII, ed. Leander E. Keck, Thomas G. Long, David L. Petersen, et al, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), 560.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.