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Reflections

Micah: A Minor Prophet with Powerful Words

Stories Seldom Heard
200th Edition
March 2016

Welcome to Stories Seldom Heard.  I especially would like to welcome the parishioners of St. Patrick’s Church, Arroyo Grande, CA.

The Book of the Prophet Micah is only seven chapters.  We might not have read this book for a long time, but most of us know by heart the following quote.  “What is good has been explained to you; this is what God asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic. 6:8).  We’ve read these words on holy cards, banners and church bulletins.  We’ve memorized them not just because of their brevity, but because they touch something deep within us.  They express God’s tenderness towards us.  They draw us in.  God seems close and personal.  It’s as though God wants to accompany us on a walk, to partner with us in life and death.  What a shocking, but lovely, invitation.  But there’s more to the Book of the Prophet Micah than these invitatory words of a life-long friendship.

Micah also is remembered for his words that we pray during our Good Friday liturgy.  Those, too, we know by heart.  “My people what have I done to you?  How have I offended you?  Answer me” (Mic. 6:3).  The questions themselves are severe enough, but what makes them even more poignant is that with these words God sets up a courtroom scene. God puts us on trial.  God calls forth the mountains and hills to give witness to the great deeds God has done for us.  “Stand up and let the case begin…Listen you mountains…give ear you foundations of the earth, for God is accusing the people” (Mic. 6: 2-3).  All of creation testifies to God’s faithfulness and mercy.  Then the drama intensifies.  God challenges Israel and us to identify what God has done wrong.  Why have we not responded in kind to God’s love?  Why have we not been just and merciful to others?  Why have we not followed God’s law?

What can we humans say on our behalf?  Micah struggles to help us respond.  In good Jewish style, Micah suggests questions to answer God’s questions.  We ask God what God wants of us.  “With what gift shall I come into God’s presence?”  Shall I bow low, sacrifice young calves, offer thousands of rams and torrents of oil, kill my first born child –“the fruit of the body for my own skin” (Mic.6:7)?   All of these offerings are extraordinary.  Each one becomes more extravagant and violent, but the last one is shocking.  We know that human sacrifice was a practice in ancient time.  Even though the Law of Moses condemned it, the Israelites certainly knew of it.  But what kind of God would require such a brutal sacrifice?  With the escalation of the costliness of the sacrifices comes the realization that no sacrifice could be sufficient.

As we know, God rejects all of these sacrifices.  God’s response is clear.  Cultic practices are not sufficient signs of faith and love of God.  Correct moral behavior is the sign of true religious practice.  “What is good has been explained to you; this is what God asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This sentence is an accurate and memorable summary of all the 8th Century prophets.  So it is no surprise that we hear similar statements from Amos who speaks of righteousness, Hosea who lifts up God’s steadfast love and Isaiah who begs us to be faithful and obedient to God’s law.  The prophets do not call us to an ethic, but to a way of life.  When we realize, to whatever extent we can, who God is, our response flows out of love, not duty.  With all of our mind, heart and strength we want to serve God and others in truth.  It is our only desire.

Even though the prophets have strong similarities, their dissimilarities are also apparent.  Isaiah and Micah are often compared probably because Isaiah lived slightly prior to Micah.  However, Micah’s condemnation and judgment of those in power is harsher than Isaiah’s.  Micah also views the restoration of society involving more than just Jerusalem.  All of the prophets, however, emphasize the responsibility of each person to be actively involved in the changes that are required in order to have the just society that God desires.  But what I find surprisingly astute is that the prophets don’t just speak of good works; they also insist on structural change.  They recognize that the evils of their society had become institutionalized.  Good works are extremely important, but real change will only come about when the unjust structures in our societies are reformed.

In Micah’s society and ours there are structures in place that insure that the status quo will remain: those in power will accrue more power, prestige and wealth, and those who are poor will continue to be brutally oppressed.  The prophets understood this pattern.  Their voices and observations are no less valuable to us as they were to the people in their day.  They call each of us to be involved in the process of analyzing the causes of injustice.  Then they boldly call us to act on what we have discovered.

Micah in seven short chapters straddles the canyon of accusing the ruling class of injustice, blaming the leaders of robbing the poor of their land and dignity, and reminding all of us that the world, land and its people are not the property of a few powerful people.

Things have not changed much since Micah’s time.  That is why Micah is so relevant to us today.  We know well that the Day of Judgment is not some far off reality.  “Only our concept of time makes it possible for us to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session.” (Franz Kafka)  Good Friday is a good day to remember Micah’s insights as we listen to God speaking through the prophet Micah in the liturgy.  “My people what have I done to you?  How have I offended you?  Answer me.”  There is no reciprocal sacrifice or gift we can give to God for what God has done for us.  But as we approach these last weeks of Lent, we might want to ponder these words and make a list of the times when God has brought us out of our Egypts?  How have we become freer to become the persons God has created us to be?  Remembering what God has done for us is the framework for our desire to be mercy to others.

It’s hard to describe what it feels like when we recognize what God has done for us.  But I thought that Billy Collins poem, “Today”, comes close to expressing the freedom and joy of those moments.

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze
that it made you want to throw
open all of the windows in the house
and unlatch the door of the canary’s cage
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,
a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies
seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking
a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,
releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage
so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting
into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just the kind of day.

Having experienced mercy, undeserved amnesty, how then, can we freely give this gift to others?

Footnotes

Nine Horses, Billy Collins, Random House Trade Paperbacks Edition, 2003.  p. 39.
(Poet Laureate of United States, 2001-2003.)

Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green and Maria Hetherton who have helped in editing this article.

 

Preachers of  Truth • Love • Justice