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? — Micah 6:8
In many churches this weekend, these lines will be read as part of the first of three readings from the Bible. These words carry a strong social justice message and may even seem like an appropriate mandate for everyone to follow in this fractious world. After all, who can’t get behind the call to “do justice and love kindness?” There were the very claims that Cornel West was making over us Monday of last week to rousing applause.
But the claim that Micah is making isn’t that broad. The imposition of a worldview that involves anything resembling “walking humbly with your God” has no place in our pluralistic culture. This observation doesn’t weaken the call of Micah. It strengthens it, for Micah’s intended audience.
Micah’s proclamations are God’s proclamations to a community of faith. They are proclamations to people who believe that they have been rescued by God. Earlier lines in this same section of Micah rehearse the mighty deeds of God’s salvation: delivery from slavery in Egypt under the leadership of Moses, Aaron and Miriam; the irrepressible blessings of God as the Children of Israel made their way toward the Promised Land; the memorable passage across the Jordan River into the land that would be their birthright. All of these events are cited, not so much as a method of providing salvation as they are the means by which God’s saving actions are revealed among human beings. The point isn’t just freedom for a group of people. The point is the evidence of the righteous acts of God expressed and made specific in the rescue of these people.
The problem that Micah is addressing isn’t that the people of the world behaving badly, it’s that people — whose very beings are testimony to divine grace — are treating each other with contempt, openly disrespecting and abusing each other, systematically taking advantage of one another in business and breaking relationships. It is an outrageous situation, that human beings whose own experiences have been ones of blessing should mistreat one another in their daily dealings.
When Christians hear these words from Micah, they naturally continue the line of God’s salvation from the Exodus right through to the death and resurrection of Jesus. The application then becomes very pointed, very precise: how is it possible that people who confess that Christ has been made a sacrifice for their lives could then go on to treat one another with anything other than abundant kindness and justice?
I write this in the midst of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This observance, which the Chapel shares, began in the early 20th century as part of a strategy of gaining greater unity among Christians. The week is marked by the Commemoration of the Confession of Peter at the beginning (Jan. 18) and the Conversion of Paul (Jan. 25) at the end. These two men were leaders of the early church and are known to have had disagreements, which they resolved.
The closing line of the Micah reading is usually translated as “walk humbly” but the Hebrew is more comprehensive than that. The word “u-etzno” in other contexts carries a notion of being fully aware of a situation and seeing the situation from the other’s perspective. This certainly would engender a sense of humility but there’s also a deep sense of empathy and appreciation for the wisdom of the other, in this case, God.
So the line might go better as “walk in an attentive and heedful manner with your God.” Such a way of walking with God has nearly automatic implications for the way we behave with others, especially those who share an awareness of divine grace.
While we long for a day when, as Valpo aspires, people might dialogue across all sorts of differences in peace and mutual respect, Christians would do well to practice this with others who confess Christ. This isn’t being exclusive. It’s being in training.
Be blessed in the journey,
Jan. 25, 2017
Rev. James A. Wetzstein serves as one of our university pastors at Valpo and takes turns writing weekly reflections.