This is the text of my October 16th, 2022, sermon on justice based in Micah 6:6-8.
October has been a bit different for us, as you’ve probably noticed. We’ve not used the usual lectionary readings for each Sunday as the first two weeks were Homecoming and then Samaritan Ministries, and now we have another special emphasis for the remaining three Sundays of the month. We’re going to be joining a Diocesan initiative to focus on that amazing passage we read back on Oct. 3rd, Micah 6:6-8
“What shall I bring when I come before YHWH, and bow down before God on high?” you ask. “Am I to come before God with burnt offerings? With year-old calves? Will YHWH be placated by thousands of rams or ten thousand rivers of oil? Should I offer my firstborn for my wrongdoings — the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” Listen here, mortal: God has already made abundantly clear what “good” is, and what YHWH needs from you: simply do justice, love kindness, and humbly walk with your God.
Micah 6:6-8 Priests for Equality. The Inclusive Bible (p. 1096). Sheed & Ward. Kindle Edition.
This diocesan initiative would remind us of the centrality of God’s call to us, God’s intention for us, to Be Just, to Be Kind and to Be Humble.
This short passage is one of those amazing passages that comes along in our scriptures and captures our energy and imagination by so eloquently summarizing and encapsulating big ideas in a simpler expression. Let’s run through a quick reminder of who Micah was… Micah was one of twelve of what we call the minor prophets, a Judean prophet who in the style of Isaiah is proclaiming both the coming punishment for the people’s disregard of God’s law, and the restoration which comes after the punishment. These two things alternate back and forth in the text, consequences and restoration. But, what were the sins or the transgressions of the people?
- Chapter 1 mentions their idolatry.
- In chapter 2 it’s their theft of land and oppression of neighbors.
- In chapter 3 they are ignorant of justice and the way justice should work for people, and instead their judges take bribes and their priests and prophets extort money.
Chapters 4 and 5 speak mostly of the coming restoration and hope found in turning back to God in obedience. And you’re probably familiar with a verse from chapter 5, 5:2… “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” We hear in it a clear reference to Christ.
When we arrive at chapter 6 God is speaking to the people, asking for their response. And here we have sort of a rhetorical question from the prophet, “What should we do?” We might even hear the question, “What is it God really wants from us?” Do we need to bring sacrifices and burnt offerings? What does God really want? And the answer is given… “Listen here, mortal: God has already made abundantly clear what ‘good’ is, and what YHWH needs from you: simply do justice, love kindness, and humbly walk with your God.”
The rest of Micah’s writing, the rest of chapter 6 and chapter 7 gives one more final round of the people’s offenses like cheating in business, violence, dishonesty, plotting against neighbors and perverting justice with bribes, with the appropriate punishment and then eventual restoration.
Spending time in Micah’s writing highlights the importance of justice that comes up in so many scriptural passages, especially from the prophets. Justice was the will of God and the expectation of God for the lives of people and their society. Justice was the bedrock, the foundation of loving neighbors, caring for the poor and safeguarding the most vulnerable. We often miss it because of the tradition of translators to interpret and translate words differently in version to version in English and from passage to passage, but the Christians ethicists Stassen and Gushee remind us in their book on Kingdom Ethics that the four words for justice in Hebrew and Greek appear across scripture some 1060 times. They contrast this against the main words for sexual sin which appear about 90 times. Because we’ve so often translated those words for justice to righteousness or judgment we’ve made it very possible to miss God’s insistence on justice, on just practices in personal and social life.
We tend to think of justice, it seems to me, in terms of action and consequences, mostly just crime and punishment. That’s been true for my life. We also think of justice specifically in context of the major civil rights movements in our nation’s history and the ongoing work to repair and correct the chronic injustices of our social, political, economic and legal systems. In God’s kingdom, in God’s economy and way of ordering the world, justice does include those movements, and also things like honesty, truthfulness, mercy, hospitality, welcome and mutuality.
Just a quick reminder and overview of what this kind of just living looks like:
1) fields are not harvested for every scrap of produce so that the poor can come and glean the edges (Leviticus 19),
2) the dishonesty of false witness against a neighbor is condemned (Exodus 20),
3) strangers and those immigrating among the people are to be treated as fellow citizens of the nation (Exodus 22)…
When we see God’s intention for our lives and hear the lists of accusations brought against the people by the prophets, we see that this is all about mutuality, seeing ourselves in others until there are no more others, but simply us. Justice is a way of living that welcomes, blesses and upholds our neighbors.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Letter from Birmingham, Alabama jail, April 16, 1963
Time and again the prophets illustrate God’s anger for people leaving the path of justice, abusing their neighbors and for their dishonest practices, for tearing and destroying that weave of mutuality of which Rev. King wrote. The people have been inhospitable to strangers, neglected the poor and the disenfranchised, and they often have done those things while maintaining a religious front, performing sacrifices and keeping feasts. It’s the situation in Isaiah 58 when God has had enough and is furious about those abuses of justice.
I believe that we’d be fully accurate to define justice as the upholding of human dignity. Justice is the truth of people’s worth and the honest action and speech to honor and uphold it.
And this understanding of justice is not confined to the Jewish scriptures but also all over our New Testament! John the Baptizer’s teachings center on sharing equitably and not cheating or extorting one another. (Luke 3) Jesus taught us the same kind of justice in keeping promises and covenants (Matthew 5), forgiving as we are forgiven (Matthew 6), being the neighbor to those in need (Luke 10), and the intrinsic honesty of our yes meaning yes. (Matthew 5) Jesus condemned the Pharisees and religious elite for choosing to major in the minors, paying so much attention to traditions and rules while ignoring the most important matters of justice, mercy and faith. (Matthew 23)
Justice is central to the will and desire of God for us, and we must own the admonition to do justice, to be just… that is to be honest, true, merciful, aware of the most vulnerable and committed to the common good, and to uphold one another’s dignity and value. We do this with our words and our actions, in our business dealings and our relationships. We make it our goal to promote justice in our society, voting for those who will be just and uphold our neighbors. We demand it of our leaders even as we cultivate it in ourselves. We do this in our communities, like our parish family, sharing life with honesty, mutual concern and care, welcoming one another and the stranger.
Justice as we are taught it in God’s kingdom is what we demand and what we deliver. May God give each of us the courage and strength to uphold our neighbors, to safeguard their dignity and in all honesty and joy take our place in that beautiful woven garment of mutuality. Amen, amen and amen.
Be blessed, Rev. Todd