Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12
The current administration in our country has made things difficult for many people this past week. But it has made it easier for preachers to prepare sermons. It’s hard to imagine a greater contrast between the prophetic words of Micah and Jesus and the words and actions coming out of the White House.
Micah and Jesus teach us to be careful about two common errors. One error religious people often make is to divide the world into good people and bad people. Micah speaks to political leaders about what God requires of us, not what a particular group of people consider good or legal. Jesus lists eight characteristics of people who are makarios. That Greek word is usually translated blessed. A more accurate translation would be how honorable. So the issue is what the creator of the universe requires of us, and what the Word made flesh considers honorable.
The second error is to get the false division wrong. Even if it were correct to divide the world into good and bad, Jesus and the prophets gave very different criteria for evaluating behavior than many religious people use. Micah and Matthew both speak to how we understand or misunderstand, calculate and miscalculate the requirements for being in good standing in God’s family. They come at the subject differently since they’re addressing two different groups. But the message is the same. Micah addresses leaders and Jesus addresses the people. Micah faults leaders for practicing forgetfulness, faithlessness and fearfulness. They miscalculate God’s requirements on the soft side, believing that God is on their side so they can get away with mistreating people. Jesus honors those who practice humility, honesty and heartfelt compassion. But there is an implicit sadness here: they miscalculate God’s requirements on the harsh side because they were taught to believe they can’t live up to God’s standards.
Micah says: “Listen, you heads of Jacob and Israel! Should you not know justice? – you who hate good and love evil, who tear the skin off my people. Thus says the Lord concerning prophets who lead my people astray, who cry “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who have nothing to put into their mouths. Hear this, you rulers of the houses of Jacob and of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong! You say, ‘Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us.”
God confronts their forgetfulness, exposes their fearfulness, scolds their faithlessness, and invites them to follow anew. “In what have I wearied you? I brought you up from Egypt, and redeemed you from slavery; remember how I helped you cross the Jordan to move from Shittim to Gilgal.” Then they start negotiating with God. They open their wallets and say, “Just tell us how much you want. We’ll give it. Do you want burnt offerings? Do you want our most expensive cattle? What do you want from us?” Micah responds: “God has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what God requires: do justice, love covenant loyalty and walk humbly with your God.”
Remember: Micah is addressing the leaders, not the people. Often religious teachers speak truth as if it were the same for everyone. The sensitive ones, the poor in spirit, take the teaching seriously and in the short run lose even more, while the powerful keep corrupting things. As one Christian leader put it, “The justice of God is not the blindfolded figure holding the scale with which to affect an equal balance. The God whose story fills the pages of scripture has some particular favorites: they are the poor, aliens, legal and otherwise, strangers, widows and orphans, women and children at risk. There’s a lot of judgment in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it is very specific: Israel comes under judgment when it worships power, wealth, national security or statues in place of the Living God, and when it mistreats the poor. God's judgment isn’t arbitrary. It comes for those persons and societies which fail to follow the leadership of justice and kindness.” (Cynthia Campbell) Beware, Mr. Trump!
In a democracy the people who are not consigned to the edge of society also need to exercise leadership. At this time, that means us. God wants our hearts, our bodies, our pocketbooks. God doesn’t just want things we’re willing to sacrifice. God wants a relationship with us. Our miscalculation of God’s requirements is not a matter of quantity; it’s a matter of quality. Micah sets the record straight about what God requires:
To do justice – means to be actively engaged in the redistribution of power in the world, to correct systemic inequalities that marginalize some for the excessive enhancement of others.
To love covenant loyalty (mercy - hesed) – doesn’t just mean to be nice to each other and ignore injustice. It means to reorder life into a community of enduring relations of fidelity.
To walk humbly with God – involves abandoning all self-sufficiency to acknowledge in daily attitude and action that life is indeed derived from the reality of God.
Now let’s get back to Jesus. While Micah addresses leaders, Jesus addresses the people. He uses a technical title: the am ha’ eretz - the scum, the ones no one wanted to be bothered with, often including their own families. They were the black men of Jesus’ day. They were closer to today’s homeless than to the middle class. They were like immigrant workers trying to get any job at all without legal papers. They were Muslim refugees detained at Kennedy Airport because they were on an airplane when the rules changed.
So Jesus gathers all of these people who are completely bereft and without honor in their culture’s eyes and gives them 2 gifts that more than compensate for their losses. He gives them honor, and he turns them into a family. If makarios means How honorable, then Jesus is saying, “How honorable are the poor in spirit; to them belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus recognizes the humble spirit of the people and not just their humble condition; he notes the guilelessness in their honesty , not just its social awkwardness that sometimes embarrassed the rich and powerful; and he saw their generous hearts that gave more of themselves than those who had more to give. Many, but not enough, Americans see those who are being left out and left behind by the current administration with these same eyes. We need to step up and struggle on their behalf.
In front of the crowds, Jesus ascribes honor to these folks who are dishonored elsewhere, declaring that these are the people whom the God of Israel honors. Their human parents may have disowned them, but they are children of the God who created the universe, to whom all honor belongs. The honor isn’t arbitrary. It’s based on a completely different set of values. Jesus didn’t just impute honor on them. He really saw them as honorable. The beatitudes are best understood as value statements: conditions and behaviors that the community regards as honorable. Jesus honors people for practicing humility, honesty and heartfelt compassion.
Jesus had watched the people who gathered around him on the mountain top in action. They were meek, refusing to compete for honor in macho ways when that affected their entire family. They were merciful and peacemakers seeking to be reconciled rather than inflict revenge on someone who wronged them. They were pure in heart, as Jesus defines purity; that meant doing things like eating with any who would break bread with you, rendering them impure in others' eyes. Jesus tells us
We know what is right, but righteousness feels so strange in the midst of our culture that we question it and fall in step with the culture:
We know that compassion isn’t the enemy of authentic ambition; but when our job is at stake our fear of falling behind can blind us to the truth. (In Good Company). We need someone who will honor the truth even when it’s inconvenient.
We know that security isn’t the enemy of integrity; but sometimes when our security is threatened by terrorists our fear of losing what we value leads us to corrupt our values so far that we barely even recognize them.
We know that strength isn’t the enemy of respect; but when our enemy has something we want our fear dehumanizes the stranger.
We know that justice doesn’t compete with peace; but sometimes in fear that our imperfect justice will be exposed, we weaken our commitment to justice for others.
I want to close with a prayer by William Sloane Coffin, a prophet who fifty years ago expressed the heart of the beatitudes and of Micah’s call to justice, kindness and humble walking with God, and that speaks to what we need in today’s quarrelsome moment: “Because we love the world, we pray now for grace to quarrel with it. Lord, grant us grace to quarrel with the worship of success and power; to quarrel with all that profanes and trivializes people and separates them; number us in the ranks of those who went forth from this place longing only for those things for which you make us long, those for whom the complexity of the issues only served to renew their zeal to deal with them, those who alleviated pain by sharing it; and those who were always willing to risk something big for something good. O God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them; take our hearts and set them on fire.”