Justice Is in the Doing
copyright © 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor
4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: January 30, 2011
For the Lord has a controversy with his people.
This is one of the all-time favorite passages from the prophets of the Old Testament, hands down. I’ve been asked to read it at countless funerals, at services of ordination, in the halls of government. Why do we like it so much? While it has the simple, straightforward appeal of a short moral exhortation, its implications are anything but short or simple. Today, I’d like to take time to consider the three imperatives of the Lord in the much-loved verse 8 of Micah’s words.
The prophet asks, “What does the Lord require of you...?” The answer sounds almost proverbial in our ears. But each word carries with it a lifetime of implications for us, and especially for our lives in the believing community.
When confronted with their own loveless relationship with God, and desiring to find a way to become close to God once again, the people asked if perhaps God would be pleased to have the best, the most valuable animals from their flocks sacrificed in the Temple instead of the runts they had been known to bring; or perhaps God would be pleased if they brought as an offering their year’s supply of oil, that precious commodity in the ancient world used for cooking, for lighting, even for grooming. Maybe if they brought a whole Jordan river full of oil...
No, there are three things the prophet said were required of us by God.
The Hebrew word translated as justice is mishpat.1 The command is not to love justice, to admire justice, to study justice, or even to seek it. The command seems simple and thoroughly straightforward. Do justice. Justice is not meant to be something people of God admire, it is meant to be something people of the covenant bother themselves to do, and that means doing even if the doing of it comes at great cost personally or to the community.
It won’t do to be justice-wishers or justice-hopers or people who are only quick to complain when justice is lacking.
Many people in 19th century America realized that for Christians to do justice, rather than admire it, wish, or hope for it, or gripe about it, enslaved people in the United States needed to be freed. But even many supporters of emancipation, people who wanted to do justice, balked when they considered the cost. We may forget that an immense portion of the agrarian economy of the United States had come to depend on slavery. The economic cost of dismantling that system was going to be tremendous, perhaps even crippling for thousands and thousands of people. And the social cost of moving former slaves toward a culture of freedom and participation in democracy would be fraught with unimagined difficulties, as we have more than come to know in the last 149 years. So, faced with the need to do justice, the majority of people instead continued for decades to seek some alternative to the doing of it by admiring it, or pretending it already existed in places where masters were kind to their slaves and slaves loyal to their masters. Only a wrenching, bloody war seemed able to bring it to an end.
Justice among people is one of the deepest desires of God, and we disregard justice at our own peril, not only spiritually, but socially, politically, and economically. An economy, society, or government built on foundations of injustice will not continue to stand. It will sow within its body politic the seeds of its own destruction.
The Hebrew word translated as kindness is hesed. It is a very common and very important word in the Bible. The translation as kindness only gets at one aspect of its meaning. It is understood in other places as having to do with loyalty, faithfulness, and love itself. It is a word the Bible uses often to describe the very faithfulness of God, most frequently translated in regard to God as “steadfast love.” It is not sufficient to feel duty-bound to be kind. Kindness is an attribute worthy of our love because it describes the faithful, steadfast loving kindness of God toward us.
I often review sermons by a pastor2 who once told a story of her church’s youth group experience with loving kindness. They were from a suburban Episcopalian congregation back east. These were kids who were from well-to-do families, who, “to be fair ... did not know they were rich, because they had only each other to compare themselves to...” They probably thought all teenagers the world over get cars on their 16th birthday and senior class trips to exotic locations. Off they went one summer to rural Kentucky, to Appalachia, to be of what assistance they could in repairing an old log mission house in the woods. As often happens with such efforts, the local people came out to see what these folks were doing in their midst, and one in particular, a friendly teenaged boy named Dwayne, set about helping. He exchanged country life stories to wide-eyed city kids, who returned the favor with city life stories for equally wide-eyed Dwayne. Halfway through the week, Dwayne let one of the girls in the group give him a city haircut. He was transformed. Suddenly, any apparent difference between Dwayne and his new teenaged friends seemed magically to have disappeared. For the rest of the week Dwayne worked, played, and prayed with the group, becoming, for all practical purposes, one of them.
At the end of the week, the group gathered for closing worship and celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and Dwayne joined them. When the group began to offer their own prayers, everyone had a chance to say something, and “quite a few of the prayers had to do with what a privilege it had been to serve the poor people of the area, upon whom God’s special blessing was asked.”
Afterward, Dwayne was clearly upset. Asked by the pastor about what was troubling him, he blurted out, “You all called me poor! I swear, I never thought of myself that way until you said it. I have all these woods to run around in. I have grandmama and a granddaddy who love me. I got a whole shed full of rabbits ... does that sound poor to you? ... You should save your prayers for someone who needs them.”
Striving for justice, they neglected kindness; unintentionally, surely. They discovered it is a too-narrow definition of poverty that equates it with not having enough money. The government is free to define poverty that way, but not believers. There is a special kind of poverty in riches, of the sort which asks whether relationships can best be based on the accumulation of things, rivers of oil, thousands of cattle.
The Hebrew words translated as walk humbly are halak and tsn. Some scholars of the Old Testament think the word we often translate as “humbly,” might better be translated as “carefully,” or “circumspectly.” Those suburban kids working among the poor of Appalachia had unintentionally sidestepped the humble part of their walk with God, when even in their public prayers they neglected to be careful, to be circumspect, just blabbing out their preconceived notions about the people they had been with for only a week. The key to this third admonition about the requirements of God is the word translated as walk. We are to walk with God, not on God’s behalf. Even a well-meaning walk with God that forgets to be humble, to be circumspect, can wound others without intention. But unintentional wounds are still wounds.
How difficult it is to recognize the need for a humble walk with God. I have often thought that the best thing we might do with new believers could be to store them underground for a few years to season them. Often in the enthusiasm of a newly embraced faith, the answers all seem so clear, and those who don’t see with that same clarity can too easily be dismissed as somehow lacking in faith. It takes years of faithful practice to realize what an immense and complex undertaking a life of faith can be.
We can become believers in a moment, taking as our own the call of Christ, but we cannot, in a moment, become mature believers. Christ can enter, cleanse, and forgive us in a matter of seconds, but it will take much longer for our character to be transformed and molded to his will. So when we receive Christ, a moment of commitment will lead to a lifetime of adjustment.3 It is humbling, but necessary, to come at last to know this.
Micah tells us that no ritual worship, no sacrifice of animals or time, no rigid adoption of moral rules and regulations will be sufficient to meet the requirements God sets for people of faith. But if our walk with God is humble – recognizing our own need for mercy – if we do justice in our lives and in the world around us – if we embrace kindness in our lives as if it were a long-lost loved one, then mistakes we make can be forgiven, transgressions erased, and we may know the God who sent Jesus so that all might finally see their sins washed away.
Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
1 Thanks to the New Interpreters Bible, Volume VII , Abingdon, 1996, p. 580, for helpful explication of the Hebrew words mentioned in this sermon.
2 Barbara Brown Taylor, “For Richer, For Poorer,” Christian Century, 12/9/98, p. 1188.
3 Apologies to John Stott. This is my paraphrase of words I have heard attributed to him.