Opening The Old Testament
Justice, Not Worship: Reflections on Micah 6:1-8
And the defendant speaks. Israel does not admit guilt; it does not ask for forgiveness. It merely wants a way out; it wants to know what this angry God really wants from them. Perhaps our worship is wrong; perhaps we have not been serious enough in our acts of praise? "What do you want, YHWH? Burnt offerings, year-old calves, thousands of rams, tens of thousands of rivers of oil?" (6:6b-7a) Not enough? Not serious enough? Then, "how about my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my life?"(6:7b) ("soul" in NRSV)
It turns out that YHWH cares for none of these. Worship is not your problem; right worship, different liturgies, livelier songs, guitars and bands, are not our problem. "God has told you, O mortal, what is good." You want to know, "what does YHWH require" (6:8a)? Very well, I will tell you. It is interesting to ask at this point: just who is speaking? Is it YHWH? That does not seem likely, given the language at verse 5. The "I" of verse 6f may be the mountains, but is it appropriate for the jury to speak like this at the trial? It must be the prophet speaking; Micah tells the recalcitrant and evil Israelites what their God really wants from them.
First, "do justice." This word is always one found in a court of law, but out of the mouth of God justice is always dictated by the concerns of those to whom justice is denied. Israel's evil actions against house and householder are the very essence of injustice. Such evil actions must stop.
Second, "love hesed." That Hebrew word is slippery to translate, but beyond all it appears to mean the unbreakable connection that YHWH has with the people. And because of that connection, the people must strive for a similar connection with their neighbors. In short, if one genuinely loves hesed, one will do justice.
Third, "walk humbly with your God," reads the NRSV, but however traditional that reading may be, the adverb is troubling. Somehow, "humbly" seems to lower the passion of justice and hesed a bit, appears to call us to "gathering the crumbs under God's table," as the older United Methodist communion ritual had it. The word might also mean "carefully," or "to give considered attention to another." We could read, then, "walk attentively with your God." Be always aware of God's call for justice, for hesed. We are to be not so much humble as alert, not so much humble as attentive to God's essential call to us. That is what God wants from us.
Like Amos's famous rejection of Israel's worshipping life in favor of "justice and righteousness" like flowing streams (Am. 5:21-24), like Isaiah's rejection of "new moon" and "Sabbath" in favor of seeking justice, rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, pleading for the widow (Is. 1:12-17), so Micah joins his fellow prophets in denouncing false worship as a smokescreen for evil; what God wants is justice, only justice.
Court is adjourned, and the verdict is rendered. Guilty, announces the judge who is at the same time the prosecutor. You are guilty of misunderstanding what YHWH requires. Justice, not worship. Justice, not oppression. Justice, only justice.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.