“He has showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before thy God.”—Prophet Micah 6:8
The Prophet Micah, a contemporary of the Prophets Isaiah, Amos and Hosea, prophesied during the reigns of the kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah of Judah ( 737-690 BCE). Micah directed his prophecies against the city of Jerusalem, which was the political and religious center of the nation of Israel (and the seat of government for the independent Kingdom of Judah), and spiritual center for Jews and Gentiles—aliens–who also believed in the God of Israel, known as God-fearers, residing outside the borders of the Israelite nation. Micah prophecied the birthplace of the Messiah as being the town of Bethlehem. He also foretold the destruction of Jerusalem and Samaria, the future restoration of the nation of Israel, but most importantly, he warned the people of Judah and Israel that their idolatry and dishonesty were at the heart of the judgments that would soon befall them and the mighty city of Jerusalem.
Micah was from a small, rural town in southwestern Judah, named Moresheth-Gath. Little is known regarding his life, but as a man from a rural town, it can be surmised that he was either a worker of the field, or a laborer, in some fashion. It is likely that his life was tied to the land and his bread won through toil. As a man dedicated to his Lord, he doubtlessly helped the poor, the widow, and the orphan to the best of his ability; all of these are concepts that the Apostle James called “true religion,” and were the same components that formed the basis of the idea of charity (Zakat) in Islam. In this period of history, there would have been almost no limit to the numbers of people living in abject poverty and hunger. Unlike today, where huge commercialized farms overproduce food that is wasted in vast sums, these people lived by what they produced; a swarm of locusts or an untimely frost could, and often did, plunge whole communities into starvation and terror. These outlying towns orbited the larger communities—in this case Jerusalem—and many workers often migrated to the cities in order to find work during fallow periods.
Jerusalem was the center of spiritual life for the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel (although, the Samaritans, as a distinct group—looked down upon by both Judahites and Israelites—worshiped from nearby Mount Gerizim). Jerusalem was home to the Temple, the heavenly Tabernacle, as well as the throne of kingship; this, in particular, was of great importance to the Judahites and Israelites, as God had made a covenant with the people to dwell there forever through the dynasty of King David. As such, many of the people looked to Jerusalem to be not only a religious and political capitol, but also the standard-bearer of truth and righteousness; the visual expression of God’s word on earth. In the time of the Prophet Micah, it had fallen into idolatry, oppression and wickedness. The rulers stole land, harvests, animals, and whatever else they wanted from the people; the Samaritans were rebuked for worshiping idols that they had made for themselves and had funded the casting through prostitution and human sex-slavery. Jerusalem itself was built up, and made increasingly more beautiful through dishonest business practices; a policy, together with the seizing of land and other assets of wealth, that worked to impoverish the people. So called prophets and teachers of the Law were selling their services for a price. This was the wickedness in which Micah found himself surrounded. It is to this generation, and all subsequent generations, that the Prophet Micah related the words of the Lord concerning what we must do for humanity to become what it is called to be. We are, according to the Prophet Micah, “to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God” in order to become something better than we are.
Certainly, one can relate to the fact that doing something is, in some fashion, to become it. For instance, someone along the way in my Norman-Irish/Welsh paternal heritage (Norman-Cherokee maternally) fashioned and fixed clothing. Therefore, I carry the surname Taylor; it is much the same for someone named Smith, Thatcher, etc. Those who dedicate themselves to a line of work, or to a cause, carry it with them, and it is often difficult to distinguish where the work ends and the person begins. The Prophet Micah is calling us to become justice; to live justly. Obviously, oppressiveness towards one’s neighbor, no matter the manner, is not living justly. As a point, the Prophet Micah did not call us to become judges; at least, not of others. To live justly is to judge only one’s own internal thoughts and outward actions in relation to something greater than themselves; it is not license to judge another person, for in that act, we again become the oppressors of our neighbor.
Hence, the reason that we are to love mercy. Mercy is radical. It is life-altering, both in the giving and the receiving of it. Mercy is also difficult. Part of our humanity wishes for us to set things right; it often becomes an idol to be given the sacrifice of ourselves and our happiness. If someone has hurt us, we feel the drive to hurt them in return. If we have been slighted, then woe to the one who has slighted us, for we shall not rest until the last penny has been avenged. But, to what end do we labor so ardently? How can a hurt repay a hurt? How can a slight be avenged by a slight? How can further tearing down ever work to rebuild anything? If any of you reading this have been, either now or in the past, a person who seeks to avenge all the wrongs done to them, I am sure you can attest to it being a fruitless endeavor, and one that brings nothing but anger and resentment into your heart, and lets them reign as kings. In being merciful, we find our true calling, for all of the animals can render a hurt for a hurt, pain for pain, anger for anger, but only humanity can choose to forgive, and become better than the creatures.
Finally, the Prophet calls us to walk humbly before God. Humility (from the Latin, humus, meaning ‘the ground’) is difficult, even for us who, metaphorically, were fashioned from the dust of the earth; the ground. It requires us to look to something greater than ourselves. Even in our American system of jurisprudence, a judge rules according to something greater than himself/herself; the judge rules according to the Law. The Law, not the judge, is the basis of the system. In the life of a believer, God is the source of all things; the merciful Creator and Sustainer of all that is. It is in relation to God that we must be humble, but this same God calls us to serve others in justice and mercy. It is by this humility that we come to understand that we are all part of a greater whole and that it serves our best interests to serve the greater community in which we find ourselves.
There will always be those who serve to oppress, that serve their own interests above those of the community at large, not recognizing that in the welfare of the community, true safety is achieved for all. There will always be those who render evil for evil, and see it as a righteous act. But, in words attributed to the 6th century philosopher, Boethius, “Those who are not working to build Jerusalem, are working to tear it down.”