With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
…He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justly, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:6, 8
*This is the sixth installment in a series of seven pieces on Micah posted every Wednesday during Lent.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible, there’s a contest over just how one might access the Creator and Redeemer God. Surely, there must be magic words to say or rituals to perform? Micah blows the roof off of priestly religion. Keep your sacrifices to yourself, thank you very much. All God really wants is a Life congruent with the Love that makes the world go ‘round: justice, mercy and humility. That’s all.
This is bad news for those who attempt to bribe and lobby their way into the Presence of God. This is terrible news for those who want to keep their relationship with God private, stored away in the heart or in heaven.
Micah dares to tell the truth about a prophetic God who demands real action: a ruthless solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized. This is magnificient news for all of us uncomfortable with the ingrained notion of all roads to the Divine traveling through the credentialed and ordained: the priest, the pastor, the professional religionist. As it turns out, God is made known in the experience of the single mom just as much as through the exegesis of the seminary trained. We ought to start listening to her.
To act justly is to learn and name the ways that social, political, economic and religious systems oppress; to work to transform them, refusing to give in to apathy or cynicism; and to learn from those who have waged nonviolent struggle before us.
To love mercy is to live in solidarity with those who are shut in, locked down and cast out, whether or not systems change.
To walk humbly with God is to embrace practices of prayer, meditation, fasting, confession, Bible study, spiritual direction, recovery and therapy; to be sustained by the God made known in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; and to believe, against all odds, that “unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word” (Martin Luther King).
All three are desperately needed for health, wholeness and harmony. Micah was confronting a kind of vintage priestly faith that elites have always utilized for the justification of their own power and privilege. Consider this proclamation from The Christian Century Magazine back in 1921:
When the capitalist discovers a brand of religion which has not the slightest interest in ‘the social gospel,’ but on the contrary intends to pass up all reforms to the Messiah who will return on the clouds of heaven, he is found just the thing he has been looking for.
Or these words from modern day Micah Jacques Ellul in The Subversion of Christianity (1980):
History bears witness that in generation after generation there has been a highly respected social class (that of priests) whose task is to make Christianity the very opposite of what it really is.
Lent calls us all to the prophetic script of Jesus, who saved all of his critique for the hypocrisy of the professional religionist class. The scribes, Pharisees and Herodians conspired to destroy him as he boldly exposed their injustice, oppression and lies masked in a brand of faith obsessed with Temple sacrifices, purity and tithing.
Jesus’ death was a sacrifice to end all sacrifices, not because it somehow magically erased our sin so that we can go to heaven when we die. It was a declaration of death to priestly religion. The scandalous cross put a stamp of approval on the prophetic script, a commitment to telling and enacting the Story through the lens of those Howard Thurman described as having “their backs up against the wall.” Good Friday (just a week away!) echoed Micah’s cry for a prophetic faith of justice, mercy and God-fueled humility in the face of the ever-present priestly justification of empire.