Initially, in preparation for Sunday's sermon, I have been focused on the Beatitudes of Matthew 5. But recently I've seen several colleagues write about Micah's distillation of what the Lord requires, and I'm starting to wonder whether I should join the Micah bandwagon and preach on doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. It is a beautiful reminder of what it means to be in a faithful relationship with the Almighty. Micah's poetic rendering seems particularly well-suited for a faded poster on the wall of a youth room. Steve Pankey shared the twenty-first century equivalent in a great pie-chart meme he created in one of his posts this week. Like many tidy summations, Micah 6:8 is catchy, powerful, and easily repeated. The only problem is that reading the Cliff's Notes without reading the book is a surefire way of making a C- on a book report.
We must remember why Micah offered these words. Start by reading the rest of Sunday's lesson. It's confusing. At first, it seems that the prophet is speaking on behalf of God, and then it seems like God himself is speaking directly, and finally it seems like the prophet has started speaking again but this time is replying to God on behalf of God's people. The reply is where the catchy little summary comes, but it might be worth noting what that reply is in response to.
Step back a little further and read the rest of Micah 6. Hear God say to God's people,
"Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked,and the scant measure that is accursed?
Can I tolerate wicked scales
and a bag of dishonest weights?
Your wealthy are full of violence;
your inhabitants speak lies,
with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
Therefore I have begun to strike you down,
making you desolate because of your sins.
You shall eat, but not be satisfied,
and there shall be a gnawing hunger within you;
you shall put away, but not save,
and what you save, I will hand over to the sword" (Micah 6:10-14).
And it goes on and on and on. God is not happy. That shouldn't surprise us since it's a prophet who is writing this. Prophets never show up to tell us that God is pleased with us--always the contrary. Why is God angry? Why is God promising to punish God's people? And why is this summary of what it means to be faithful to God inserted here?
Because God's people have forgotten God. In a Jude-Law-plays-the-Young-Pope kind of moment, Micah is saying in a booming, thunderous voice, "You have forgotten God!" Your trade is dishonest. Your forgiveness is nonexistent. Your charity is lacking. Your worship is meaningless. Your self-righteousness is overflowing. God has saved you, and how do you respond?
God declares, "O my people, what I have done to you...? For I brought you up from the land of Egypt..." God has set his people free. God has rescued them from slavery and oppression. And what is God's people's response? All it takes, Micah reminds us, is to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly, but you can't even get that right!
The heading for this section in the NRSV on biblegateway.com is "God's Challenge to Israel." Yes, a challenge is an invitation--in this case a strong invitation to change or, at least, an invitation to recognize our tendency to get it wrong no matter how much we might want to get it right. This summary is damning to us. If all it takes to have a right relationship with God is those three little things, then why can't we get it right? Because we're human. Because we're imperfect. Because our best intentions are marred by our inadequacy, which is to say by our sin.
This quaint little summary exposes our weakness. It reveals our need for help. The good news of Jesus reminds us that God does step in to help us even when we are faithless. Don't read this three-fold summary and think, "Great! I can do that!" because that's not what Micah had in mind. And don't preach, "All we have to do is what Micah tells us to," unless you're also going to say, "But we can't, which is why we need Jesus." Micah 6:8 is a beautiful summary, but it summarizes our need for divine intervention. May these words point us back to God as we seek God's help in Jesus.