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The Prophet Micah
Sr. Patricia Bruno, OP
Stories Seldom Hear 253rd Edition
The Prophet Micah
Welcome to Stories Seldom Heard. The Book of the Prophet Micah is only seven chapters. We might not have read this book of the bible 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 in 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. God wants to accompany us, walk with us, as a partner in life and death. What a shocking, but poignant invitation. But there’s more to the Book of the Prophet Micah than these inviting words of a life-long intimate friendship.
We also remember Micah because we pray his words each year during our Good Friday liturgy. Those words, 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 difficult to hear is with these words God sets up a courtroom scene. In Chapter 6 God puts us on trial. God calls forth the mountains and hills to bear 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 creation gathers attentively to give testimony to God’s faithfulness and mercy to us. 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 help us answer God’s questions. Yet, our defense is pitiful as 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)? Each sacrifice builds on the last and becomes more extravagant, but the last one is shocking, even violent. We know that human sacrifice was a practice in ancient time. Even though the Law of Moses condemned it, it took the Israelites a long time to break from the pagan cultures that influenced them. Slowly they realized that God did not desire human sacrifices. What kind of God would require such a brutal test? Yet, what God asks seems too difficult for them because it means a change of heart. God asks, “only this, to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
God rejects all of the sacrifices the people suggest. God’s response is clear. Cultic practices are not sufficient signs of faith and love of God. Correct moral behavior and mercy are the signs of true religious faith. “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 Old Testament prophets. Therefore, 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 call us to a way of life. As we become more fully aware of who God is, our response flows out of love, not duty. With all our mind, heart, and strength we grow in our desire to serve God and others by following God’s laws of justice and humility.
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 about 750 BCE. 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. It is a total restoration. Micah, similar to the other prophets, emphasizes the responsibility of each person to be actively involved in the changes that are required in order to have a just society. 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 that ensure 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 today. We, too, realize, as Micah did, that there are unjust structures and laws that perpetuate poverty. Many of us have been aware of this for a long time. We have worked in a variety of ways to help bring about a more just society and world. However, it is obvious that there is more work to be done. We cannot ignore the voices in the streets of our cities. The demands for justice echo the pleading voice of God. “My people, what have I done to you, how have I been a burden to you? Answer me.” (Mic. 6:3-4).
Some of us might feel we are not responsible for any unjust situation that affects our society. We might feel that if God called the mountains and the hills to pass judgment on us, we would be found “not guilty.” Yet, Micah’s God calls for total restoration which means everyone must be involved. New questions are being raised concerning our vision of the common good particularly as it affects racism. New insights are being offered. If we are to respond to God wholeheartedly, we must examine our actions and attitudes through the lens of this new information. Where might we begin our sincere examination? One suggestion is to read and draw modern-day parallels to the six chapters of The Book of Micah. Sheltering-in-place has its drawbacks, but it also gives us time to seek answers to these ancient and new questions of justice. Another suggestion is to read Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X Kendi. One of the sisters I live with teaches at Mission Dolores Grammar School in San Francisco. As a staff, the teachers are reading and discussing Stamped. Even though the book is written for young adults, the teachers have found their conversations about the book stimulating and enlightening. Stamped is a nonfiction book that addresses the history of racism in the United States. It also offers hope in an antiracist future. There are other books on the bestsellers’ lists that help us explore our unconscious participation in racist attitudes and/or actions. One of the ways we could respond to God’s courtroom questions about mercy and justice might be to read one of these books this month.
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). There is no reciprocal sacrifice or gift we can give to God for what God has done for us. But remembering what God has done for us is the framework for our desire to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God every day of our life. Following God’s laws of love, justice and mercy is the true path to freedom and joy.
It’s hard to describe the feeling when we recognize what God has done for us. But I think Billy Collin’s 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?
- Nine Horses, Billy Collins, Random House Trade Paperbacks Edition, 2003. 39.
(Poet Laureate of United States, 2001-2003.)
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green and Maria Hetherton who have helped in editing this article.