with Tony W. Cartledge
Teachers: Scroll down for teaching materials.
A Time for Mercy
As January draws to an end, our New Year’s resolutions may already have gone by the wayside, but it’s still a time to think about how we plan to carry out our lives during the coming year.
What do we want to do, and what do others expect of us? What does our family expect? What’s expected in our job, or in our volunteer positions? What does our community or our country expect? More importantly, what does God expect of us?
A challenging lawsuit(vv. 1-5)
Fortunately, the Bible offers a very good answer. It is found in the writings of the prophet Micah, who lived and worked in Israel during the eighth century before Christ. Micah, like his contemporaries Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah of Jerusalem, often pointed out how Israel had fallen short of God’s expectations for them.
In a speech that opens chapter 6, Micah portrayed a dramatic scene in which God called Israel to court with the mountains and hills, the “enduring foundations of the earth,” as both witnesses and jury (6:1-2).
Acting as God’s prosecuting attorney, Micah asked “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” (v. 3). Although the people of Israel were being charged, Micah began by asking why they could possibly be complaining against God. Were they tired of waiting for an easier life, when their present troubles were their own fault? Was God not living up to their expectations of a carefree life?
Like other prophets, Micah pointed to the many ways in which Yahweh had been faithful to Israel. God had brought the people up from Egypt, providing Moses as their leader, Aaron as their priest, and Miriam as a prophet (v. 4).
When King Balak of Moab paid the pagan shaman Balaam to pronounce a curse on Israel, Yahweh forced him to speak only good of the people’s future (v. 5a). When the people were finally ready to enter the Promised Land, God led them from Shittim, their last camp east of the Jordan, to Gilgal, their first camp in Canaan (v. 5b). Had the people forgotten these things?
A poor defense(vv. 6-7)
Micah believed the people had failed to appreciate God’s blessings and had ignored God’s guidance. He perceived that they had substituted religion for righteousness. They understood rituals, but not respect. They were really good at religion: they worshiped at the temple, sacrificed animals, and paid requisite tithes, but the way they lived was a different matter.
Micah saw through the trappings of eighth-century Israel’s religious practices to recognize that the people had reduced their religion to a system of bribing God with prayers and sacrifices in hopes that God would adopt a positive attitude toward them, but it wasn’t God’s attitude that needed changing. It was theirs.
The people’s only defense, which Micah quoted sarcastically in vv. 6-7, was locked into the categories of ritual and sacrifice. “What do you expect of us?” he portrayed them as asking. “How do you want us to approach you? With whole burnt offerings? With year-old calves? With thousands of rams, or tens of thousands of rivers of oil? Shall we sacrifice our firstborn children as payment of our transgressions?” (vv. 6-7).
Whole burnt offerings, the “‘ōlā” or “holocaust” sacrifice, called for an entire animal, usually a young sheep or goat, to be burned on the altar. These were offered less often than shelamīm offerings, in which God was offered the blood and visceral fat, while worshipers and the priests cooked and ate the meat. Did God want a higher percentage of whole burnt offerings, or for more of them to be year-old calves, which were more valuable than younger animals?
With increasing sarcasm, Micah imagined them upping the ante. Does Yahweh want thousands of rams? Ten thousand rivers of valuable olive oil? Would God never be pleased? Should they go all the way and sacrifice their first-born children to atone for their sins?
The answer, or course, was “No” on all counts. Child sacrifice was expressly forbidden by the law (Lev. 18:21, 20:2-5, Deut. 18:10), and the prophets strongly condemned it (Jer. 7:31, 19:5; Ezek. 16:20–21, 20:26; Isa. 57:5).
Micah understood that God was not interested in more ritual sacrifices or more religious acts. God wanted Israel to be righteous, not just religious, and that desire has not changed. Christians are not called to religion so much as to a right relationship with God and others. As Ralph L. Smith put it, “So when we come before God we must remember that it is not so much what is in our hands but what is in our hearts that finds expression in our conduct that is important” (Micah–Malachi, vol. 32 of Word Biblical Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984], 51).
What God expects(v. 8)
And so, in God’s behalf, Micah offered a remarkable response that countless believers have memorized as a guideline for life:“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).
We live in a world where people practice prejudice, love selfishness, and walk arrogantly as their own gods. But this is what God expects from us as we go out to put our stamp on the world: that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before God.
Micah did not claim that this was any new revelation. “He has (already) told you,” he said. The teaching of Moses, the 10 commandments, the proclamation of other prophets had often declared the kind of attitudes and actions that God expects.
What does it mean to “do justice”? Micah used the word “mishpat.” It is a term that could describe a legal decision or judgment, but more often referred to actions that are right and just for all people.
Amos, Micah’s contemporary, preached along similar themes. In words that are more familiar to us from a speech by Martin Luther King than from Amos, he also called on Israel to stop putting their trust in elaborate religious rituals. Instead, he said, “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24).
It is so easy for custom and culture to blind us to injustice. Popular “reality” television competitions depict settings in which lying, cheating, backstabbing and betrayal are all okay because “that’s how you play the game.” But life is not just a game, and others do matter.
Justice begins with respect for others, including those who look different, those who talk different, and even those who have different ideas. As Dr. King famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Now what is our motivation for practicing genuine justice? Are we to go out on a limb and stand up for others just because God said so? Are principles and ideals of justice enough?
Of course not. Micah’s audience had the law. They had a very clear set of moral and ethical codes to live by – but they weren’t following them. That’s because real justice cannot be motivated by fear of breaking the law alone. Real justice starts in the heart. It not only respects other people, but loves them and wants what is best for them.
That’s why Micah goes on to say “to do justice, and to love kindness.” That latter phrase can be translated in different ways. The familiar KJV and the NIV say “to love mercy.” The NAU and NRSV have “to love kindness.” The NET says “to be faithful.” All of these elements are important, and it is this kind of faithful, steadfast love that motivates real justice.
Justice and mercy grow directly from a daily walk with God. Micah reminds us that we are called not only to walk with God, but also to walk humbly, modestly, and attentively.
So many problems in our world could be overcome if more of us could learn the art of humility. Any time people are dead certain that they have all the answers, one can be dead certain that strife will follow.
When religious leaders of any persuasion think they have a handle on all truth, or when political leaders think their way is the only way, or when husbands and wives are unwilling to compromise, there will be strife. There will be hurt. There will be pain.
Unless we are willing to admit that we might be wrong about something, or that the reality of a situation might be bigger than we yet comprehend, there is no room for change or growth in our own life, or in our relationships with others, or even in our relationship with God.
We can’t know all the answers and walk humbly with God at the same time. God is far beyond our comprehension, bigger than what is revealed in the Bible, surpassing our imagination. There is much God wants to teach us, but we cannot learn if we are not teachable, and we are not teachable if we do not have some humility about us.
We may wonder about many things, but we don’t have to wonder what God expects of us. We are called to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with our God. If we can do that, we can be absolutely sure that our communities, our nation, our world will all be better for it – and that would be a very good thing. NFJ
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for January 29, 2017 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Micah 6:1-8
One of the most frequent questions I hear from parents is “Is _____ normal about my kid?” I think this question has as much to do with the parent wanting to be validated as their youth. Not only are there expectations heaped on our students, but there are also expectations heaped parents as well. What do you use to measure your expectations? Where do these expectations come from? There are all kinds of voices out there telling you what should be expected of you, but why not start with some biblical expectations: the Fruit of the Spirit, the Beatitudes, or Micah 6.8. These expectations are not only attainable, but they are what we are called to do and be. So the next time you have questions about expectations, ask yourself what you are really measuring.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“You’re Not What I Expected” from Prince Caspian via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Micah 6:1-8