Narrative Lectionary Year 1
Micah 1:3-5; 5:2-5a; 6:6-8
With today’s reading, we leave the narratives of the Old Testament behind and enter into the world of the written prophets. And I want to start by reminding you all what a prophet is and what a prophet is not. A prophet is a person who speaks for God and tells the people what God wants. A prophet is NOT a person who tells us what is going to happen literally in the future, like a Nostradamus, although some of what the prophet says may include what God is going to do in the future. Instead, the primary purpose of the prophet is to tell the people what they are doing right and, more often, what they are getting wrong and what God is demanding that they stop doing. We have already met some prophets in the stories that we’ve heard thus far this fall. In the story of David and Bathsheba, for example, we encounter the prophet Nathan, who comes to David and tells him a story about a rich man taking a poor man’s lamb for himself, and when David condemns the man, Nathan tells him that the man in the story is David and that God is not happy with him. Last Sunday, we met the prophet Elisha, who was the means for God to heal the Syrian general Naaman—prophets did sometimes perform miracles as well. And so, with those two examples in mind, and a general idea of who prophets were and what they did, let’s take a look at our text from the prophet Micah today.
Micah operated in the southern kingdom of Judah in the 8th century BCE, during the reign of the kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah. He witnessed the end of the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE, when it was conquered by the Assyrian Empire and its people scattered. Some of Micah’s themes in his preaching to the people are: (1) contrary to the idea that Jerusalem is indestructible because of God’s covenant with David, Jerusalem will fall to the enemy because the people are not obeying God’s covenant that was delivered through Moses; (2) even though God will punish the people of Israel and Judah because they have disobeyed God’s Law, God will remember God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and will eventually restore Jerusalem and the rest of the people of Israel, and (3) in both the judgment and the restoration of Israel, the Lord stands alone; the Lord is God.
In our selected readings today, there are a couple of verses which I know that we have heard before: the one about the ruler who comes from Bethlehem, which gets a lot of publicity in the upcoming Christmas-Epiphany season, and the one that is printed on the stole that I’m wearing today: What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? It is the latter verse that I want to focus on today, and especially the part about doing justice. We in the church understand loving kindness and walking humbly with God better than we understand doing justice. We love kindness when we engage in acts of charity, such as feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. We walk humbly with God when we pray and when we seek God’s will, and when we come to worship God on Sunday mornings. But what is justice, and how are we to do it?
Growing up, when my brother or I complained about something not being fair, my father would always tell us, “Life isn’t fair.” And while that is very good wisdom and very good preparation for living a life in a sinful world, that doesn’t mean that we can’t work to make life more fair. Simply put, that is what justice is: making sure that each human being that God has created has the same opportunities and the same benefits as every other human being. Justice is seeking to make life as fair as possible for each person on this earth.
Here are a couple of examples from the book of Micah about what justice looks like. In chapter 2, Micah condemns those who covet fields and houses and take them away from the people who own them. And in chapter 6, after today’s portion, Micah condemns those who have “dishonest weights”; in other words, those merchants who cheat the people by having scales that weigh either too much or too little of something.
These might seem like issues that are long ago and far away to us. Yet, just this week, I read a piece in The Washington Post where the author says that, here in the United States, while we have a right to an attorney if we are accused of a crime, we have no such right in civil cases (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/we-have-a-right-to-counsel-in-criminal-cases-why-not-in-evictions/2018/11/06/bbdb8600-d879-11e8-83a2-d1c3da28d6b6_story.html?utm_term=.c8973a23488e). Now, picture yourself as a low-income family struggling to pay rent with the income you have. You have a car breakdown or a large medical expense, and you’re not able to pay the rent. The landlord decides to have you evicted. And, since you can’t afford a lawyer to represent you, you don’t know what your rights are. For example, you don’t know that it’s illegal for the landlord to throw your belongings on the lawn. This article stated that there is an eviction crisis in the United States: 2.3 million evictions were filed in 2016. There is a lack of affordable housing and rents are skyrocketing. And, once you have an eviction on your record, it’s very difficult to find someone else who will rent to you. This is our modern version of people who covet fields and houses and take them away from the people who own them.
So, what does it look like for people of faith to do justice in this situation? Participating in Family Promise is one way to begin. We find out the stories of the families who are without a home and how they landed in that situation. We help to house them as they receive assistance and education to get out of the situation that they’re in, and to not land in that situation again. We learn to empathize. But doing justice doesn’t stop there. Doing justice means that we find out what the laws regarding landlords and renters in our state are. Doing justice means talking to our lawmakers and advocating for them to change the law, so that those who are in eviction proceedings have the right to a civil attorney just as they would to a criminal lawyer.
Besides talking about grabbing land, Micah also speaks of dishonest weights that cheat those who are poor out of what they need by weighing things at not the right weight, but either too heavy or too little in order to benefit the merchants at the expense of the poor people. We don’t have an exact equivalent of this that I could find. But there is such a thing as economic justice, and one form that takes in our society today is the minimum wage. The minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25 an hour. According to the state Department of Labor, 190,800 people earn the minimum wage or less. I guarantee you that you have seen many of those 190,800 people in the neighborhoods surrounding our 4 Lutheran congregations. Of those workers, 65 percent are women, 74 percent are white, 58 percent are under the age of 25, and 60 percent do not have a high school diploma. People cannot afford to live on their own if they are only earning a minimum wage, and so they will do things like work two or three minimum wage jobs in order to make ends meet, or live with aging parents who can care for their children. This is part of the reason that I see the people I do coming and looking for help, and if they’re not able to earn enough to live on, they can’t break out of that cycle of poverty no matter how much they may want to. Doing justice in this case would be to talk to our state and federal legislators and advocate for raising the minimum wage to something that people could live on. Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania, or LAMPa, recommends raising that minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.
Doing justice means that we take risks in order to make the world a little bit more fair for our neighbors around us. Sometimes the things that we advocate for are not very popular. Sometimes doing justice means that we need to take part in protests in order to make our voice heard by legislators who don’t seem to be listening to us. Sometimes it means that we need to explain our positions to people who disagree with us. Doing justice is not easy. In fact, doing justice is meant to disturb us from our comfortable lives in order to experience the discomfort of those who do not experience justice. And that is neither easy nor convenient. And yet, this is what God is calling us to do through the prophet Micah, alongside of loving kindness and walking humbly with God.
My father is right, you know. Life isn’t fair. And it won’t be completely fair until Jesus, the one whom Micah prophesied about in chapter 5, returns. When Jesus comes in his glory, then everything will be made right once more. All will have enough to live on, and not just enough, but more than enough. Until that day comes, we are called to do the hard work of the coming kingdom, knowing that we won’t always get it right, but trusting that Jesus is there with us, walking beside us, urging us onward. Therefore, let us be bold as we strive to follow God’s directive through Micah: What does the Lord require of you? Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Amen.