To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.
I mention Bill Maher because I saw him interviewed the other night on the subject of his well-developed antipathy toward organized religion...of any stripe. He has described religion as a neurological disorder that spreads guilt and hatred among people while offering nothing in return. He is convinced that, in addition to misleading gullible folk by offering answers to unanswerable questions (like "What happens to me when I die?" and "What is heaven like?"), religion is dishonest because it supposedly motivates the faithful to personal sacrifice while all along what they are really doing is nothing more than trying to insure a good life for themselves in eternity. The interviewer politely suggested that Bill might have misunderstood, but Bill was not having it. He is convinced that all religion really is is people trying to feather their own eternal nests. He is so sure of himself on this issue that he has made a documentary on the subject that, one of these days, will be available for all to see. I doubt that we will be showing it at a family night supper anytime soon, but that is neither here nor there.
Now, I could ask what YOU think, but I suspect that your presence here this morning indicates a disagreement with Bill Maher's premise. I KNOW Micah would disagree. Micah's take on religion is found right there at the end of the lesson: "He has showed you, O man, 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." No feathering any eternal nests there.
It was in the latter part of the eighth century BC that Micah prophesied. He was a young contemporary of Isaiah, Hosea and Amos. He and Isaiah brought God's message to the people of Judah in the South while Hosea and Amos took it north to Israel. It was a period of turmoil and change. Assyria was fast becoming a world power to challenge the hegemony of Egypt. There was one battle after another with the little nations used only as pawns in the wider struggle. Israel and Judah were constantly threatened by one power or another. It was a difficult time.
Like Amos, Micah was a product of the countryside...a farmer...and like farmers throughout the centuries, he had a certain mistrust of city slickers. In his case, he had good reason: it was the city slickers who were fleecing the folks of the countryside that Micah knew as friends and neighbors; it was city slicker judges who took bribes to render unfair judgments; city slicker priests who were immoral and corrupt; city slicker prophets who would prophesy anything you might want in exchange for a few shekels. No wonder Micah thought of the cities as cesspools of sin.
To be sure, he had plenty to complain about concerning the nation's religious habits. It was bad enough that the prophets and priests were not living up to expectations, but the reason they were not was that the people did not want them to. The only preaching they wanted to hear was "God's in his heaven and all's right with the world." Micah even joked about it: "If a liar and deceiver comes and says `I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,' he would be just the preacher for this people." (1) Even Bill Maher might be impressed. They did not want to be embarrassed by anyone who would have called them to account for their behavior.
It was time for them to hear a word from the Lord. So Micah came to them with a message that was not only valid for his own age, but for every age to come.
Micah begins with phrasing which would have put his audience in mind of a legal proceeding. He employs the formal language of the law: "Stand up, plead your case." But this is no ordinary courtroom. The judge is God and Micah is counsel. And before the defendant is called to the stand to hear the charges, an impressive jury is empaneled - "the mountains and hills, and the everlasting foundations of the earth."
Before the members of the court, Micah, on behalf of God, makes a case concerning the chosen people. The actual charge is implied rather than explicitly stated: Israel has grown tired of God and chosen to go its own way. But why, God asks? Has God let them down? How is that possible? Consider the evidence of history. When Israel was enslaved in Egypt, God gave the people freedom. When they were without leaders, God gave them Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and others. When their very existence was threatened in Moab by King Balak, God rescued them yet again. When they crossed the River Jordan, from Shittim to Gilgal, God was with them once again, protecting them, leading them. Clearly the evidence to the court shows that whatever the reason for Israel's failure, it cannot be blamed on God.
Now it is Israel's turn to address the court. There is no dispute about the crime or the evidence - the accused simply asks, "What must I do to set things right?" But the very phrasing of the possible remedies betrays the fact that the defendant still does not understand. Israel assumes the solution is more ritual - "With what shall I come before the LORD?" The possibilities start modestly with the only offering that might be available to a poor worshiper (bowing down), then move to the more costly sacrifice of a year-old calf, then to the outrageously lavish sacrifices that would be available only to a king ("thousands of rams... rivers of oil"), finally to the forbidden, dark sacrifice of a child, the "firstborn" - the list runs the gamut. What would satisfy God's wounded dignity?
You can picture Micah standing there and slowly shaking his head. They still did not get it. Ritual had become an end in itself, not something that pointed to the people's relationship with God. The whole sacrificial system and worship of the temple had been turned into a kind of national insurance policy: we can sin as we wish, so long as we are up to date with our insurance premiums at the temple. With extraordinary nerve, the nation was suggesting to the court that the sins of hypocrisy could be atoned for by further hypocrisy on an even grander scale! (2) Bill Maher would say "SEE, SEE!!! I told you."
No. Micah says there is no mystery as to what God requires, and it has nothing to do with sacrifice and offering. "He has showed you, O man, 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." Three elements that constitute real religion. Then...and now as well.
Consider what he says. He begins with "act justly." "In its strictest sense, justice means fair play. It means making sure that all God's children inherit their fair share of God's good gifts. And if they don't, because someone has swindled them out of their birthright or because they were not strong enough to hold on to it, justice means doing whatever is necessary to sort out what belongs to whom and return it to them." (3) It is not enough to wish for justice or to complain because it is lacking. This is a dynamic concept that calls on God's people to work for fairness and equality for all, particularly the weak and the powerless who are exploited by others. (4) "ACT justly."
Nothing startling here. The nation had known God's standard of justice since Moses came down from Sinai with the Ten Commandments. The first two - it is unjust to delude people into pursuing false gods, whether ancient pagan deities or their modern equivalents (money, power, pleasure, etc.) that ultimately demean and destroy; the third commandment - it is unjust to treat people dishonestly by not being as good as your word; the fourth commandment - it is unjust to overwork people (even yourself); the fifth commandment - it is unjust to allow aging parents (or anyone else who might be vulnerable) to go without the necessities of life; number six - it is unjust to deny someone their very life by killing them; number seven - it is unjust to put a man's home and family at risk, to jeopardize inheritance rights, by seducing his wife; eight - it is unjust to take someone's private property without permission; nine - it is unjust to subvert the judicial system with false testimony or anything else. Number ten - setting our hearts on what rightfully belongs to someone else leads to injustice. The standard was very clear.
But the standards had gone by the boards. What kind of standard was being met by judges who took bribes? What kind of standard was the rule for the unscrupulous land-grabbing of the nobles in the cities? What standard would result in the oppression of the poor? What type of standard could there have been in the temple with prophets letting it be known that they would only come through with something favorable if the petitioner would cross his palm? As Paul would write later, "the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil," (5) and it was certainly apparent in the days of Micah. The standard of God was being ignored.
The problem is no less acute now. No one would deny that standards have been lowered. We have rewritten the Golden Rule: "Do unto others BEFORE they do unto you." Do we have officials taking bribes? Is there any land-grabbing going on? Are the poor in America being oppressed? We know the answers all too well. America's standard is not God's standard.
Moving along. Have you ever seen Judge Judy on television? I never have but I am told her motto is "Justice with an Attitude." In a unique way, in the prophetic understanding of real religion, Micah encourages something similar, only the attitude he pairs with justice is mercy, or "loving-kindness" as the Hebrew word here, chesed, is frequently rendered. Chesed is difficult to translate with any single English word. It is a relationship word. It has the connotation of "getting inside someone's skin." Just as we might say "look at it through my eyes," or "put yourself in my shoes," the feeling is one of a changed perspective. To the Hebrews it would have been a special word because it is one of the principal attributes of God in the Old Testament. As God always acted toward the people in loving-kindness, so too God expected them to act in the same way toward one another. If God's people are to be just, they are to be even more - they are to give where no giving is deserved, to act when no action is required. It is not only an activity, it is an attitude. Chesed. Loving-kindness. Mercy.
No, Micah's nation was not what it should have been in regard to chesed. How could one say that offenders were treated mercifully when the judges had been bribed to render unfair verdicts? What mercy was displayed when shady deals deprived people of their houses and land? What mercy was evident when the people who were suffering the most - the poor - were systematically ignored?
Our society is no different. We think of ourselves as merciful people: we are gentle with animals; we do not deliberately mistreat the less fortunate; we give billions to charity...but the same indictments could be laid at our doorstep as those for ancient Israel. We think of our judicial system as fair, but we know it is much more "fair" with those who have money and power. That is why we have all the fuss right now about the firing of the US Attorneys and the politicization of the justice process. This is not the American way. There are laws on the books to protect people from the shady business practices that can bankrupt good families, but thousands lose millions every year because there are so many loopholes in the laws. Remember Enron? Worldcom? Yes, we give money for the relief of suffering, but we give out of our abundance - what we do not really need - with the result that what is given is not nearly enough. In short, we are a merciful nation...whenever it is convenient. Safe to say, Micah would object.
A student told about a famous lecturer who came to the college he attended who spoke about feeding the people of India. He listed several good reasons for doing so - more people would be employed, friendlier relations with other countries would be established. In addition, we would continue to be in the good graces of the Indian people and of the government. During the informal discussion which followed, the oldest and most revered professor at the college asked, "But, Doctor, don't you think maybe we ought to feed them just because they're hungry?" That is the question that joins justice and mercy. (6)
Justice and mercy...critical to the living of lives that are pleasing to God. But one can be just without being religious. One can show mercy without any religious inclination. And Bill Maher insists, since that is true, religion is superfluous. That is why Micah says REAL religion requires one thing more: a humble walk with God.
It is the daily walk with God that energizes the commitment to do justice and go even beyond to treat people (even the undeserving) with loving-kindness; the ritual of the temple that was so important to Israel could give expression to the vitality of that walk, but it could never be a substitute for the daily companionship that is part and parcel of a life of faith. "Walking humbly with God is a call to do more than to come to God with offerings thinking to buy God's favor [feathering the eternal nest], but to spend the time walking, living life, with God in ways that would work out in every aspect of life. It implies a sensitivity to the things of God, a concern...to allow our heart to be broken by the things that break the heart of God. It is a deep desire to see the world through the eyes of God, to act in the world as God would act." (7) When this final requirement is placed cheek by jowl with the first two, walking with God becomes synonymous with having a heart for justice and mercy. The three cannot be separated, for walking humbly with God, living all of life in relationship to God, will result in both.
I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases this verse in The Message. He has it, "Don't take yourself too seriously; take God seriously." Right on.
I am sure you will not be surprised to hear that I disagree with Bill Maher about religion. No question some of his observations are valid - some horrible things have been and continue to be done in the name of religion. But the perpetrators of those things have misunderstood religion on their side just as badly as Bill Maher has misunderstood on his. Let's get back on track. Listen again to Micah: "He has showed you, O man, what is good...REAL RELIGION. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
1. Micah 2:11
2. Peter C. Craigie, Twelve Prophets, Volume 2: The Daily Study Bible Series, John Gibson, Gen. Ed., (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), p. 46
3. Barbara Brown Taylor, Bible lecture via Internet at the meeting of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, Hartford, Connecticut, June 27, 1999, http://www.naccc.org/hartfor/features/bible_3.html
4. Daniel J. Simundson, The Book of Micah, The New Interpreter's Bible, electronic edition, CD-ROM, (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000)
5. I Timothy 6:10
6. Bible Illustrator for Windows, (Hiawatha, IO: Parsons Technology, 1994)
7. Dennis Bratcher, via Internet, copyright © 2000 Christian Resource Institute, http://www.cresourcei.org/lectionary/YearA/Aepiphany4ot.html