The Pinnacle of Ancient Religion

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, February 2, 2014

Micah 6:1-8 ESV

If we were to search the Hebrew Scriptures, or what we call the Old Testament, for one passage that might be considered the pinnacle of ancient religion, what might it be?  I surmise that it would be difficult to come up with one better than the passage I read to you from the eighth-century BCE Hebrew prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV, Third Edition) says, “In this single sentence the prophet sums up a century of brilliant prophecy.”  “. . . the prophet sums up the legal, ethical and spiritual requirements of religion, and sounds major notes of Amos (Am. 5:24), Hosea (Hos. 2:19-20), and Isaiah (Is. 7:9; 30:15)” (RSV The New Oxford Annotated Bible).  I would argue that in this one verse the prophet sums up several centuries of brilliant prophecy. 

We see with Micah and the other 8th century BCE Hebrew prophets like Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah the beginning of a shift in ancient Hebrew religion.  It was a shift from the ancient cultic, sacrificial system—a system in which men offered bloody sacrifices in attempts to please, placate, and influence the actions of God—to a religion of the heart that stressed right, ethical living.  It was a shift from doing perfunctory things like offering sacrifices to being and living ethically in relation to others.

Micah began with a call to do justice.  Such is something we should have learned in Kindergarten or the first grade sandbox.  It might be summed up in a simple “play fair” or “share with others.”  In fact, the contemporary translation, The Message, renders it, “Do what is fair.”

Such was the intent of the prophet Micah—that God’s people begin treating fairly those who had been and were being taken advantage of.  The poor were being oppressed and robbed (2:2).  Merchants weighed with false scales or balances (6:11).  Violence was common (6:12).  Neighbor could not trust neighbor (7:5).  And all the while, the people were offering their sacrifices, thinking that was all that was required of them.

A few years ago, one of the most popular HBO television series was The Sopranos.  It was about a New Jersey mob family, of which Tony Soprano was the head.  There were times when members of the Soprano family would go to church on Sunday, for confession and mass.  But then the other six days a week they would return to their extortions, and murdering, and other acts of injustice.  It was as though going to confession and mass and giving offerings made everything all right.  Such is what I think of that was going on in Micah’s day as well.

But Micah said, “No!”  God has no interest in sacrifices.  Thousands of rams.  Rivers of olive oil poured upon God’s altar.  God has no need for these.  A few went so far as to consider child sacrifice, something practiced by some peoples of that time and place (and even a few Israelites), but for the most part was considered abhorrent in Israelite religion.  Instead, Micah called, “do justice.”  Be considerate of the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden.  Don’t take advantage of the weak just because you can.  Rather, be an advocate of the weak, poor, and oppressed.

And Micah’s injunction never goes out of fashion.  We, too, are called 2,800 years later to be advocates of the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden of the 21st century—those who have not been able to get health insurance because of pre-existing conditions, the homeless, families who have jobs but are paid the minimum wage but still can’t pay the bills, migrant farm workers who often are slaves to the system, those enslaved in human trafficking; the list is long of those who cry out for justice.

Secondly, love kindness.  Be kind to others.  Relate to others in “faithful love,” as the phrase may also be translated.  Instead of being heavy-handed or a bully, be gentle and kind.  Walk a mile in the shoes of the other one.  As Jesus would later say, “do to others as you would have them do to you.”

There are so many wonderful quotes on kindness, that I have a difficult time deciding which ones to share with you.  An ancient saying attributed to the Greek philosopher Plato, but attributed to others as well, is “Always be kind; because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”  This is true.  We may encounter someone we know, and we are surprised that they may seem to be unfriendly, or preoccupied, or maybe even rude.  And our first inclination may be to be rude back.  But the truth is, we don’t know what is going on in that person’s life.

To give you an example, some years ago, I was on my way into a hospital lobby to visit someone, and coming out of the lobby was someone that I had been very close to in high school.  I smiled and spoke to the person, but I thought her response was quite cold and indifferent. And I couldn’t understand it, because, as I said, at one time we had been quite close.  Sometime later, I learned that this person had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, from which she eventually died.  I have always wondered if she had just learned the news of her illness on that day that we passed in the hospital lobby.  If so, I had no idea the hard battle she was fighting.  So we just never know.  It pays to be kind.

H. Jackson Brown has said, “being kind is more important than being right.”  And then there was the 8-year-old child who replied, when asked “What does it take to be an angel in modern times?”: “You have to know about kindness—it don’t matter whether you are modern or old, you need to have kindness if you want to call God your friend.”1   I think the prophet Micah would have concurred.

And then, walk humbly with your God.  As noted earlier, up to this point religion had been an exercise in rule-keeping, placating; attempting to appease, and even to persuade or control God.  But with Micah, we see a shift in the nature of religious emphasis to that of being in relationship with God.  Walking with God.  Humbly walking, but walking with God, nonetheless.  It is that of walking with God, as a constant companion.

Eight hundred years later will find Jesus performing his ministry in the spirit of Micah.  The heart of Jesus’ message (as related by the gospel writer Luke, anyway) would be kindness or compassion.  Jesus would emphasize an intimate relationship with God or the Spirit.  Marcus Borg refers to Jesus as “a Spirit Person.”  Jesus’ practice of referring to God as his Father supposedly got him into trouble with the religious authorities.  And Jesus’ call for justice for the poor, oppressed, and outcasts, and his condemnation of the oppressive political-religious system of the day, most likely is what got him killed by those in authority.  Yes, the influence of Micah upon the life and ministry of Jesus seems evident.

 The message of Micah was somewhat innovative in that he contended that God “is more interested in the way people live their everyday lives than in their religious practices” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. VII, p. 580).  What Micah was calling for was a radical and total outlook and way of life.

And so, to repeat what I said in the beginning, one could say that the famous quotation from Micah constituted the pinnacle of ancient religion.  But the beauty of Micah’s prophecy is it is just as powerful, and relevant, and challenging today as it was 2,800 years ago.  If we had no other religious instruction available to us, we could live a pretty good life if we sought to live by the principles of doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.  Amen.

1Heller, Angels Must Get Their Wings. P. 45.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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