What is good | 27 July 2014



Twelve Scriptures Project

Text #6: Micah 6:8

There’s an expression you might hear from time to time: “If these walls could talk.”  This tends to get said inside a building, a space, where we recognize something significant has happened, but there aren’t any people around anymore who would have witnessed it.  No one – except for these walls, which have been here all along – could tell us the story.    If you’ve never said “if these walls could talk,” or even knew the expression existed and was available to be said, perhaps you have thought the thought behind the expression, walking into a place – and wondering what all has happened within those walls.

When we bought our house just up the street we learned that the elderly couple we were buying it from had lived in it for 50 years, raising their children and hosting their grandchildren throughout that time.  Although we didn’t have any interest in the walls of the house divulging anything about the family, we did have a sense that the walls now surrounding us had contained the long history of another family.  As it turned out, one of our first acts of home ownership was to permanently silence one of the walls by eliminating it from existence and opening up the kitchen to the dining room.  Fortunately none of the other walls fell down in the process.

If the walls of this sanctuary could talk, what would they say?  They have witnessed baptisms, baby dedications, services for healing, Vacation Bible Schools, many joys and concerns shared openly and prayed for.  If these walls could talk I wonder if, instead of talking, they would sing, having absorbed all the sound waves from voices gathered together week after week.  I wonder if these walls prefer Baptist red carpet or Mennonite purple.  As if a church needs one more voice on what color to have the carpet.

If these walls could talk: silent witnesses brought to life and enabled to tell a story no single human has been around to see.

Micah 6:8 holds the privilege of being the shortest of our Twelves Scriptures.  Just one verse.  This past week during Bible School the kids and teachers have had a memory verse each day and this is one of those scriptures that is very doable in committing to memory.  “The Holy One has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”  Micah was one of the early Hebrew prophets, roughly contemporary with Amos, Hosea, and the first Isaiah, and this passage is sometimes referenced as a summary, a distillation, of all prophetic teaching.  When Jesus was asked what is the greatest commandment in all the Hebrew Scriptures he combined two different passages about loving God and loving neighbor.  One wonders if this one just barely missed the cut as a close third.  Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly.  “Do this, and you will live.”

This passage is also a transition from “The primacy of love” theme to “The cry of justice.”  Last Sunday Mark made the comment that perhaps all of the Twelve Scriptures are really about love in some way.  “God is love,” as the 1 John 4 passage declares.  If you ever get an email from CMCer Jon Lucas, who is on staff at the BREAD organization, you might notice that the tagline at the bottom of his email provides a nice connection between the themes of love and justice.  It’s a quote from Cornel West which says, “Never forget, justice is what love looks like in public.”  If all of these scriptures are ultimately about love, then these next two speak to love going public, through the practice of justice.  Our partnership with BREAD is one of the key ways we commit ourselves to love’s public presence as justice in Franklin County.

Micah 6:8 is a short passage and works fine standing on its own.  But it is also a climactic statement set up by what comes before it.  It’s in these previous verses that Micah evokes what might have been the equivalent in his day of “If these walls could talk.”  This summary statement of the prophets is watched over, perhaps even declared by, witnesses who, to the untrained ear, appear to be silent.

As Micah sets it up for us at the beginning of chapter six, we are invited to imagine with the prophet that we are in a courtroom scene, or a trial before village elders.  Yahweh, the LORD, is playing the role of the plaintiff, bringing a charge against the people of Israel, the defendant.  Micah has spent the previous five chapters naming some of the specifics of this charge: the rulers run the nation through bribes, the priests and prophets are easily swayed by moneyed interests.  The people oppress one another and covet the fields and houses of their neighbors, sometimes seizing them.  In this virtual courtroom, the prophet is playing some combination of bailiff, court reporter, and attorney.   There are no quotation marks in Hebrew, but the first to speak could very well be the prophet, who calls the court to order.  The version printed in the bulletins is taken mostly from the JPS, Jewish Publication Society translation, which is pretty close to the NRSV, but does a little clearer job of capturing the legal nature of the language.

“Hear what Yahweh is saying: Rise, present your case before the mountains, And let the hills hear you pleading.”

Which immediately introduces the other major players in the case.  When you’ve got the prophet, the people, and the Lord all involved in the case, you’ve kind of run out of people to be that impartial third party – the jury, or the elders who judge.  But there’s a solution.  The jury, as we’ll think of them, those witnesses to the case at hand, will be the entire created order.  Listen up mountains and hills.  This is your letter in the mail.  You’ve been summoned for jury duty.  We will plead our case before you – Although it’s kind of hard to imagine creation being a completely impartial body, given that it is highly indebted to the plaintiff for its very existence.  But we’ll trust that they will do their best to listen closely to all sides.  If these walls could talk – if these hills and streams and trees could listen and deliberate, and talk.

The prophet continues:

“Hear, listen, you mountains, the case of Yahweh — You firm foundations of the earth! For Yahweh has a case against His people, He has a suit against Israel.”

With the mountains, the bedrock, and the rest of mother earth properly seated in their places and at attention, it’s time for the opening statements, which swings us over to the plaintiff, Yahweh.  Only rather than addressing the jury, the Lord of the Universe turns and addresses the defendant directly.

“My people! What wrong have I done you? What hardship have I caused you? Testify against Me. 4 In fact, I brought you up from the land of Egypt, I redeemed you from the house of bondage, And I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. 5

Yahweh begins by claiming the defendant as an intimate participant in the covenant.  “My people.”  And proceeds to plead innocence of any wrong doing.  And not only innocence, but Yahweh has done everything to love and serve the people.  Yahweh can be rather harsh through some of the prophets, but here Yahweh is almost pleading with the people.  “What hardship have I caused you?”  Yahweh then begins recounting the salvation story of the people.  I saved you from slavery.  I even provided leaders to march you toward freedom.  Moses – the deliverer, the one who walked out in front.  Aaron, the top advisor, the speech writer, the confidant.  Miriam, the music leader, the one who brought the spirit of celebration and joy on the other side of the Red Sea, as she led the people in dancing and rejoicing at their deliverance from Egypt.

And then Yahweh goes on with recounting more of the divine faithfulness to the people.

“My people, Remember what Balak king of Moab plotted against you, And how Balaam son of Beor responded to him. Recall your passage From Shittim to Gilgal — And you will recognize the gracious acts of Yahweh.”

Things were no doubt getting a little tense in the room, and in order to relieve the tension a little bit Yahweh reminds the people of that time when a king hired a prophet to curse them, Balak enlisting Balaam for the job in Numbers 22, which resulted in the prophet Balaam’s donkey verbally convincing the prophet that this wasn’t such a good idea.  Long before the Shrek movies, Yahweh knew that a talking donkey would be a big hit with the people.    Come on people, that was a good one.  And you made that other passage across that other body of water, from Shittim to Gilgal, across the Jordan.  You got some real estate of your own out of this whole deal.  I have been most gracious to you.  My people.

Yahweh has said his bit, and takes a seat, if Yahweh can do that, and it’s the people’s turn to respond.  And they do so in verse 6 and 7.

It’s hard to tell the tone of voice here, but it appears that the people are either playing dumb, taking the route of ignorance of the law, or are trying to demonstrate that they’ve done everything that’s asked of them and Yahweh still doesn’t seem to be pleased.  Basically, saying Look jury, we’ve done everything legally required of us and this Yahweh character is just way too demanding.

The people stand at the defendant’s stand and address the jury, avoiding eye contact with Yahweh.

“With what shall I approach Yahweh, Do homage to God on high? Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings, With calves a year old?   Would the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, With myriads of streams of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, The fruit of my body for the sins of my soul?”

This Yahweh wants way too much.  Each suggestion for what might work gets more extreme.  He apparently isn’t satisfied with the perfect calf a year old, or with thousands or rams sacrificed on the altar.  Well how about my firstborn child?  Is that what it’s going to take to make things right with Yahweh?

The stage is set.  And that bring us to Micah 6:8.

Question: Who or what is speaking these words of verse 8?  It’s not the people, because they are clearly the ones being addressed.  It’s probably not Yahweh, because it speaks of the Lord in the third person.  That leaves either the prophet or the jury.  We have some imaginative freedom here.  Either this is the prophet offering a pastoral word to the people, or, what I kind of like to imagine: this is the jury, the hills and the mountains, who have witnessed this whole drama of God and humanity from the dawn of our species.  The mountains like Sinai who have helped mediate heaven and earth in the giving of the Torah, that hill in Galilee that will serve as the site of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount that taught the way of the beloved community; the geological fixtures, which have risen up patiently and slowly over the countless millennia from the pressures and forces of this ever shifting planet, seen species evolve, flourish, and fade away.  Have themselves been worn down by rain and wind, only to be lifted up again through other forces.  The ravines of Clintonville, which carry the runoff of our lives into larger bodies of water.  Those which see all this drama and stand as silent witnesses to God’s abiding faithfulness in the world.

The jury has heard enough.  They have consulted and are of one mind, they speak with one voice.  They address the defendant, the people, with the verdict.

8 “The Holy One has told you, O mortal, what is good, And what does Yahweh require of you: Only to do justice And to love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God.”

What is good.  That very word pronounced over the hills and mountains and all of creation at the beginning.  “It is good.”  “It is very good indeed.”  This is what is good.  This is what allows creation to flow, to be renewed, to continue in covenant with its Creator.  It’s not complicated.  It’s not a puzzle.  It has very little to do with whatever religious ritual you thought was appeasing some kind of angry or demanding deity.

The jury has given its verdict.  The village elders have spoken.  When these walls talk, they don’t tell us secrets or something we’ve never heard before.  They tell us what we’ve heard all along, and simply struggle to remember.  Justice.  Mercy.  Humility.  The summary of the message of the prophets, and not a bad summary of the prophet from Galilee who would come centuries later.  Not a bad summary for what this congregation is all about.