Sermon Seeds: Do Justice. Love Kindness. Walk Humbly.
Sunday, January 29, 2023
Fourth Sunday after Epiphany | Year A
(Liturgical Color: Green)
Micah 6:1-8 • Psalm 15 • 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 • Matthew 5:1-12
Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly
Thrill and Rejoice (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
In life, we have requirements. Things that we have to do in order to achieve what we want, reach the destinations we desire, attain the credentials or status to which we aspire. We learn this from an early age. There are requirements in school–assignments that we need to complete. Tests we need to pass. Skills we need to demonstrate in order to progress to the next grade level or make the honor roll or receive a reward. At home, there are requirements. Standards and rules that we have to live by to keep harmony with our parents and siblings. Chores to be completed. Gatherings and family functions to participate in to support one another and show our love for one another. Ways of behaving and speaking and interacting that are acceptable and expected. In our extra-curricular activities, there are requirements. Equipment that we must learn how to use properly and effectively. Uniforms or dress guidelines to keep us in order and to show our allegiance to a particular side or team. Practices and rehearsals that must be attended. Workshops or planning sessions that help us achieve our goals.
Life is full of requirements. Requirements keep us on track and provide boundaries. Requirements challenge us to do more, be more, and have more. Requirements help us to live with others, maintain good relationships, and ease tensions. Requirements invite our participation and our submission.
There are also consequences when we fail to meet requirements. What happens when expectations and commitments are unfulfilled? In our interactions with the divine, what consequences arise from failing to meet the requirements found in the covenantal relationship?
The first five books of the Old Testament narrative are also known as the Torah, or law. What is law but a binding set of requirements for living in community? The breaking of those laws all have consequences for the people who failed to meet the expectations of a wise and loving God. Most of those books are written as narrative, detailing the relationship, which reminds us that law serves relationship; relationship is not intended to serve the law.
In Micah 6, we encounter a fractured time in the covenantal relationship. The estrangement was so entrenched that the text reads as a trial where both parties exhibit a deeply emotional response, with feelings of betrayal, hurt, and grievance on display. It reads like a bad divorce, where whatever love existed between the parties has long dissipated and only acrimony remains.
Micah shapes his prophecy as a courtroom Covenant-lawsuit brought by the Lord against His people Israel in order to settle a dispute between them. The Covenant provides that for the People of Israel, as Jeremiah 31:33 puts it, the Lord will be their God and they will be My people. The Lord accuses the People of not abiding by the Covenant. The Covenant goes back to ancient times when the Lord says to Abraham: 7 will maintain My Covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting Covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and your offspring to come (Gen. 17:7). Thus, the first eight opening verses of the chapter take the form of an indictment rather than the usual prophetic oration. Complexity and some confusion arise because Micah does not follow the lawsuit analogy to its fullest and does not identify the speakers explicitly while he himself speaks all the roles within the dramatic analogy. The complexity makes it difficult to grasp the flow of the prophecy. Although Micah does not explicitly identify the characters who speak, we can infer the boundaries of the four roles within the analogy. In 6:1-2, a bailiff of the court (or some other assistant) summons the mountains and the hills to hear the suit of the Lord against the People. The mountains and the hills, as ancient foundations of the earth, will serve as witnesses. The issue before the court will be the charge of the Lord, as the plaintiff, that the People of Israel, as the defendants, have breached their Covenant with Him. The bailiff summons everyone to hear the dispute.
Ronald T. Hyman
It is interesting to consider the Holy One in the role of the plaintiff or defendant in a trial when most often God would be characterized as the Judge. After all, who has the authority and righteousness to determine if the law has been broken or a contract agreement has not been met? The Law was handed down by God, and the covenant was instituted by God. Who can judge God’s faithfulness to divinely given expectations and commitments?
While the trial-like discourse in Micah can read as if God is the plaintiff, it also infers a people rendering judgment upon their Sovereign. The Holy One seems to make a case defending themselves and assuring they have upheld their commitments. The covenantal requirements placed on God, after all, are self-imposed. The covenant is a gift of God’s abiding presence that the people appear to reject over and over. That is the consistent message of the prophetic ministry. God is faithful and ever-present in all circumstances; yet, the beneficiaries of the covenant often cherry-pick their inheritance, settling for and seeking the material and political rewards while eschewing the true gift of the covenant–God’s constant and consistent companionship.
God seems to have reached their limit.
Whereas court cases traditionally start with a leveling of charges against the accused, here the deity opens the proceedings in the defendant’s box, raising concerns about YHWH’s own possible shortcomings and giving the accused a chance to voice any complaints that they may have (6:3–5). Through YHWH’s line of questioning, which suggests a sense of confusion and betrayal as YHWH works to understand how it might have offended the people and caused them to go astray, YHWH highlights all that has been done for the people (6:3–5). The accused does not appear to take the opportunity to lodge any complaints, but responds in 6:6–7 with a series of questions as to how the accused might appease YHWH’s anger, offering a crescendo of cultic sacrifices from burnt calves to the climax of child sacrifice.
Matthew J. M. Coomber
The attempt to pacify God through these sacrificial offerings may seem to refer to the prescribed remedies for breaking the law as enumerated in the book of Leviticus. The sacrifices and offerings listed there were not intended to diffuse God’s wrath, as in cultic practices, but to bring restitution, restoration, and repair. Counterculturally, those “mandatory sentences” were not about rendering punishment and deprivation but extending grace and facilitation reconciliation. As a result, to offer those sacrifices at a time when the Holy One’s frustration and despair over the disconnection in the covenantal relationship confirms the people do not appreciate or value their connectedness and union with God. The perfunctory offer is offensive and furthers the rift rather than mends it.
Micah 6:6-7 indicates that God’s people were quite mistaken in thinking that he would take delight in their innumerable and extreme sacrifices.60 Admittedly, the Lord had ordained the sacrificial system for the Israelites, and had even forbidden them to approach him without an offering;61 yet, in this case, the people were using the system in a vain attempt to buy his favour. To be specific, they tried to carry out rituals in a sacrilegious, hypocritical way, but were not truly obedient when it came to dealing with others in an equitable, kind, and humble manner.
At times, in broken human relationships, one partner will craft an elaborate scheme in order to get back in the other’s good graces. They may plan an elaborate vacation that ultimately leads them into debt and places more stress on the relationship. They may make promises for profound changes in behavior that while seeming to be thoughtful do not actually address the root cause of the schism they are facing. The other partner may express frustration with the elaborate but empty attempt at reconciliation. In this case, God is the other partner.
God’s response to the people’s offer of appeasement cuts through the hypocrisy and disingenuousness motives to make the case plain. God has already made it clear what the requirements of right relationship are: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.
I often say, following the Way is simple even if it’s not easy. But Micah invites us to consider if God’s part of the covenantal relationship is the same. God promises God’s presence, but what happens when God wants to be done with us?
The idea is troubling:
That YHWH should be presented as abandoning his people may at first seem far- fetched. In fact, however, the theme of divine abandonment is widely attested throughout the Ancient Near East as well as in the Hebrew Bible.
The biblical witness is that God keeps the covenant, never leaving nor forsaking their people. But that does not mean that there aren’t times when God wants to give up. In some ways, that is a frightening thought; in others, there is an incredible assurance that despite how God might feel, God chooses to keep God’s self-imposed requirement. God chooses to covenant with us over and over just as God invites us to choose their presence over and over.
When the Holy One grows weary of our faithfulness, they still choose to abide with us.
When the Sovereign One despairs over the idols we continually create, they choose to affirm that they are our God and we are their people.
When we move farther and farther away, the Parent chooses to wait for the prodigal child to recognize their error and return.
It’s not easy and, as we observe from this dialogue, exacts a toll upon the Holy One, but God makes the covenantal, required choice.
What then, in return, does God require of us? The simple, yet hard act of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God regardless of attitude, circumstance, or option. Crafted in the divine image, we have been given the choice of response to life’s conditions, yet we have not been absolved of expectation and responsibility. This is our call, and it is our common hope. This is how we participate in the covenant and the kindom. This is how we follow the Way and live in God’s will. This is how we forge beloved community, and this is how we become all that God has prepared us to be. This is life abundant and flourishing.
Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“Whenever I’m around some who is modest, I think, ‘run like hell and all of fire,’” she said. “You don’t want modesty, you want humility. Humility comes from inside out. It says someone was here before me and I’m here because I’ve been paid for. I have something to do and I will do that because I’m paying for someone else who has yet to come.”
— Maya Angelou
I invite you to read the entire article for the context of this quote and how the requirements/expectations Maya Angelou had for the interview and interviewer further amplify her points about humility.
For further reflection
“Since when do you have to agree with people to defend them from injustice?” – Lillian Hellman
“Memories of our lives, of our works and our deeds will continue in others.” – Rosa Parks
“Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.” – Haile Selassie
Coomber, Matthew J. M.. “Jonah.” Gale A. Yee, Ed. Fortress Commentary on the Bible: Two Volume Set. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014.
Joosten, Jan. “YHWH’s Farewell to Northern Israel: (Micah 6,1-8).” Zeitschrift Fü r Die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 125, no. 3 (2013): 448–62.
Lioy, Dan. “The Supreme Importance of Promoting Equity, Kindness, and Humility: A Descriptive and Comparative Analysis of Micah 6:1-16 and 1 Corinthians 13:1-13.” Conspectus 25 (March 2018).
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
If your faith community has a church covenant, engage in a review or recommitment to it. If not, consider introducing the possibility.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Micah 6:1-8 • Psalm 15 • 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 • Matthew 5:1-12
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=16