What Does God Require? (a sermon from Matt. 5:1-12 and Micah 6:1-8)
Biblical interpreters call this passage in Micah a lawsuit oracle. It is a proclamation of indictment or judgment against the covenant people, most likely the leaders of Israel toward the end of the eighth century BCE. The prophet rails against religion that is awash in liturgy and ritual, but devoid of substance. When we turn this in on ourselves the truth of it is that we might never miss a worship service, we might give a full tithe of our income to the church, we might serve in various capacities within the church structure and organization, and still, we might completely miss doing God’s will.
What is God’s will? How does true religion express itself? Micah is quite explicit. O mortal, cries the prophet, what is good? What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.
The three things Micah highlights that God requires are mentioned specifically in three of the beatitudes in Matthew 5. One could easily make the case that all the beatitudes relate to the three areas Micah addresses. Last week from Matthew’s reading we noted that Matthew has summarized Jesus’ message as a proclamation of God’s kingdom. In the Sermon on the Mount that follows Matthew shows us what is most central to Jesus and the kingdom he proclaimed. So what does God require? Let’s start at the end of Micah’s list and work backward. What does it mean to walk humbly with God? Micah doesn’t mention walking humbly with one another but surely that is implied. The beatitude that speaks to this specifically says: Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Notice too that the promise relates to this earth, not heaven. Later in the Sermon Jesus will teach us to pray: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. God is concerned about this earth; heaven is in great shape. Heaven is doing fine. The earth – not so much.
So what is meekness? Meekness is not weakness. Jesus exercised a lot of personal charisma and authority, but he did not use his personal power and authority for personal gain or acclamation. He never attempted to coerce or force others to yield to God. And he emptied himself of all personal ambition. To be meek is be humble, it is to have a healthy view of oneself. Being humble is not about self-loathing or denigrating one’s self. It is not about walking around crying, “Woe is me, I am a great sinner.” You may be a great sinner, I may be a great sinner, but we are still children of God, created in God’s image, whom God loves with an eternal love. We need to remember that in our creation stories original blessing is more important and comes before original sin.
Meekness is not weakness, and humility is not timidity. In fact, it takes great courage to constrain ourselves from responding to violence with violence as Jesus taught us. Jesus relinquished all claims to worldly power, but he certainly wasn’t powerless. He relied upon a different kind of power – the power of Spirit, the power of love. It was the Spirit of Love that compelled Jesus to confront and challenge the religious and social powers of his day with the spiritual reality and a future vision of a kin-dom of mercy and justice.
You can always tell a humble person by the way their presence puts you at ease. In Matthew 11 Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” When you are in the presence of a humble person you feel at ease. It doesn’t matter what position or place that person occupies in society, high or low, you feel totally at ease, you feel at rest in their presence.
I read some years ago where Rolling Stone magazine interviewed Scott Weiland of the band, “The Stone Temple Pilots.” This was just after he had been released from prison, having served a term for drug possession. In the interview he kept using the word “humility.” The reporter asked him to define the term. Scott Weiland said, “It’s not me thinking less of myself. It’s me thinking of myself less.” I love that explanation. Humility means I am less self-absorbed so I can be about in a healthy, life-affirming way what is really important? The next two items on Micah’s list tell us what is really important: to love mercy and to do justice.
The beatitude that parallels the call to love mercy says: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” They receive mercy because their heart are open to God and the needs of others. One biblical scholar interprets mercy as “compassion in action.” It’s not just feeling sympathy or empathy for others. And while feeling sympathy and especially empathy are good things, mercy is about more than feeling for others, it’s about doing for others. When the blind cry out to Jesus in Matthew 20:30, “Son of David, have mercy on us,” they are not asking for sympathy or even empathy; they want healing. Mercy is action based.
I read in the news about an act of mercy by a number of plumbers last weekend who went to Flint, Michigan to install water filters. All the facets in Flint need water filters because of the lead in the drinking water. Plumbing Manufacturers International donated the faucets, and over 300 plumbers across the country poured into Flint to donate their time and skill. They were able to replace faucets and filters in over 800 homes. This was a corporate or collective or act of mercy. An act of mercy can be an individual act or it can be a collective, communal act, but it always involves some sacrifice extended for the benefit of others.
How important are such acts of kindness and mercy to those in need? In the judgment parable of Matthew 25, acts of mercy constitute the basis of judgment. Those who are judged are judged on the basis of how they acted and treated the most vulnerable among them, the ones Matthew calls “the least of these.” In fact, in responding to the needs of the most vulnerable they were actually responding to the cosmic Christ. The cosmic Christ says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The Christ so intimately identifies with the vulnerable of the world that to care for them is to care for Christ.
There is nothing, absolutely nothing in the text about what one believes. Nothing. It’s all about what one does. In fact, when you get to the end of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says in 7:21, “Not every who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” According to Matthew it’s not what we believe or confess, but what we do that matters.
This brings me to the first thing on Micah’s list of what God requires: to do justice. The corresponding beatitude reads: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” The word translated “righteousness” can also be translated “justice.” This is not a beatitude about personal righteousness; it’s about restorative justice or social justice. Restorative justice is not about what is legal; it is not about satisfying some demand of the law. It’s not about someone getting what he or she deserves. Rather, it is about establishing systems and structures in society that are fair, just, and good. According to Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, justice or righteousness has to do with actions that improve and maintain well-being in the community, particularly those actions that give special consideration and show special attentiveness to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged.
The Hebrew prophets railed against religious and political leaders who spurned justice, but yet were very pious and religious. For example in Isaiah 1 the prophet tells the people of Israel that God rejects all their sacrificial offerings and rituals and expressions of worship. God doesn’t delight in any of your worship, says the prophet. Then he tells them what God requires: “seek justice, (then he spells out what it means to seek justice), rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” That’s what justice looked like in that day and time. The prophet says, “If you want to please God, then take up the cause of the oppressed and the most vulnerable in your society.” In that day and time that generally included three groups: widows, orphans, and foreigners (undocumented persons, immigrants).
Justice and mercy go hand-in-hand but it’s important to understand the difference, because mercy is not enough. Some of us are real good when it comes to mercy, but not so much when it comes to justice. Whereas mercy responds to the immediate needs of the homeless and the poor by offering shelter and food, justice confronts the systems we live in that create homelessness and poverty in the first place. While mercy is about giving a hungry person some bread, social justice is about trying to change the system so that no one has excess bread while some have none. Mercy is about helping the victims of war; justice is about peacemaking and eliminating the conditions that lead to war. The work of justice tackles such issues as poverty, inequality, war, racism, sexism, materialism, nationalism, heath care, violence, immigration, and the environment. Workers and advocates for justice often find themselves at odds with huge, blind economic, political, social, and religious systems that dis-privilege some while they unduly privilege others—systems, by the way, we each live in and are all complicit in – which of course complicates the struggle.
Bob Riley, a conservative, was elected governor of Alabama in 2002. He discovered that Alabama’s tax code had not been changed since 1901. He pointed out that the wealthiest Alabamians paid three percent of their income in taxes while the poorest paid up to twelve percent. Out-of-state timber companies paid only $1.25 per acre in property taxes. Alabama was third from the bottom of all states in total taxes, and almost all of that came from sales taxes, which of course, are paid in higher proportion by people who need to spend most of their income on basic needs. So a totally unjust tax system. So Governor Riley proposed a tax hike, partly to dig the state out of its fiscal crisis and partly to bring more money into the state’s school system. He argued that it was their Christian responsibility to attend to the needs of the poor more carefully. This meant that wealthy Alabamians would have to pay more taxes. The leader of the Christian Coalition of Alabama spearheaded the opposition. He said, “You’ll find most Alabamians have got a charitable heart. They just don’t want it coming out of their pockets.” The law was defeated and the schools remained underfunded. What Bob Riley attempted to do, but failed to accomplish was bring about justice. He was seeking justice in their tax system. Do you see the difference? Every act of justice is an act of mercy, but not every act of mercy is an act of justice.
The work toward social or restorative justice is rooted in the awareness that all people have worth and dignity – that God loves the whole wide world, not just my little part of it. It is difficult work. Ask Congressman John Lewis and he will tell you how challenging it is. He endured much suffering in the struggle for civil rights. In his book, Across that Bridge, he writes, “The struggles of humanity will not be corrected in a day, a week, a year, or even in a generation. Those of us who are active participants in the struggle must recognize that we are part of a long line of activists who have come before. . . . Each individual participates in this conflict where he or she is actively or passively engaged. The divine spark that is resident in each of us challenges us to be the light and stand up for what is right. We can decide whether to obey the call of the spirit or abide in denial, confusion, or hostility to the truth. But once we have heard the voice calling us to act, we cannot rest until we do something. And it is when we find the courage to act on that calling that we can finally begin to find peace.” And I would add not just peace in our world between alienated groups and nations, but peace in our own hearts. A deep, true peace, not a shallow, superficial one.
What does God require? Both the prophet Micah and Jesus are clear: To walk in humility before God, to engage in acts of mercy, and the most difficult, but maybe the most important, to work for the justice of all. And sisters and brothers, this is not baseball. We shouldn’t think God will be pleased if we get two out of three.
These three areas of divine will delineated by Micah form a triangle and if you remove one of the sides it is no longer a triangle. If we point the triangle straight up and then fill in all around it we have a pyramid. Of the pyramid the base is the critical part because it supports the rest of the structure. I have no doubt that from the divine vantage point the base has to be built out of social justice, because it’s the only way we could ever get a just society. I’m sure that’s why the prophets over and over and over again proclaim the need for social justice. So what does God require? First of all – to do justice and then to do mercy and walk humbly with God and everyone else.
Our good and gracious God, help us to see that being a disciple of Jesus calls us to look beyond ourselves, beyond our own good and well-being to embrace your love and passion for the good of others. May we realize that we are all in this together, that no one group is better than another group. Inspire us to sees the good of others and to act in mercy toward those in need. And empower us not to give up on the difficult work of confronting systems and structures, institutions and organizations that promote favoritism and exclusion. Give us the courage to challenge systems of injustice and to work for that which is good, right, fair, and just.