Commentary on Micah 5, Working Preacher Lectionary
Micah prophesies during the second half of the 8th century BCE in Judah.
After occupying the Promised Land, the Israelites set up a kingdom and saw it flourish under David and Solomon. But infighting leads to a split into 2 kingdoms. This, in turn, invites other powers in the region to attack and conquer. Micah comes along at this point to speak into a community that has seen its political leaders fail, its military might evaporate against overwhelming force, and its own worship of God exploited by the religious leaders.
In fact, Micah describes widespread religiosity where people are making a public show of how religious they are with loud lip service to God (Micah 3). It appears that business-as-usual religion has kept religious leaders self-satisfied and the powerful in power, “who tear the skin off my people and the flesh off their bones” (Micah 3:2). Into disillusionment and disappointment, Micah proclaims God’s promise of a new kind of ruler and a new kind of relationship.
The first portion of this week’s readings (Micah 5:2-4) focuses on a new kind of ruler. Micah prophesies that the current state of failed leadership is not the end of the story. God has other plans. A new ruler will come from “one of the little clans,” from Bethlehem. Let’s stop right there. For Hebrew ears, Bethlehem signals several things.
First, it is the house of David, the most beloved ruler. Second, it is considered the boonies, outside the center of power and privilege. Third, just to be sure we don’t miss the point, Micah calls it “one of the little clans,” indicating its insignificance and low status. Lastly, notice that the new kind of ruler is, ironically, “from old,” rooted in the ancient story of God and Israel. This new kind of old ruler is not the stereotypical picture of a mighty leader who wields power and prestige. What does this tell us about who God is and how God works? We’ll pick up this thread later.
The second portion of the readings (Micah 6:6-8) focuses on a new relationship. It’s a new (based on the old) way of life that explicitly rejects the score-keeping with God that had been at the center of religious life. First, we hear in verse 6 the people’s go-to response when their transgressions are made plain. They resort to the well-worn form of score-keeping to appease God: “What payment will it take to get God off our backs? Burnt offerings? Thousands of rams? My firstborn? How can we even the scoreboard?”
Micah contrasts this knee-jerk score-keeping to the path God has already given, "He has told you, O mortal, what is good" (verse 8). The entire Torah has already given God's people the path of life. Moreover, Micah stands in a line of prophets who have reminded the people, over and over, of this path. Micah offers a summation of what God requires, at once more simple and more difficult than keeping ritual practices: "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."’
This is a new way of life, a new way of being in relationship. To enact justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God, are not single acts that can be checked off the list and left behind. Periodic nods to equity do not constitute a faithful life, Micah tells us.
At this point in the narrative lectionary, the text from Micah reminds us of God’s mission for the world: a new kind of ruler and a new kind of relationship.
So what does a new kind of ruler and a new kind of relationship have to do with us? How can you help your audience see our story within God’s story? Many pieces of Micah’s context are familiar –- a once-great nation in identity crisis, political leaders who disappoint, reliance on violence, rote religiosity, and despair of any way forward. The promise of a new kind of ruler and a new kind of relationship speak to hungry hearts today.
Micah invites us to reframe our lives within God’s story, to see our lives anew. This passage can help us investigate false powers and distorted relationships in our lives today. During election season, it’s worth asking about the ways we invest identity and power in political leaders.
Even more embedded in our lives are score-keeping relationships with God and others. We may even prefer it. We, like the Israelites of old, commodify our relationships. Sometimes it sounds like this: What will it take to get my _____ (husband/co-worker/ sister/church/teacher/God) to do what I want them to do?
Other times it’s more subtle: What minimum hoop-jumping will count as faithfulness? We observe racial quotas on committees in place of seeking racial justice. We send checks for disaster relief and avoid examining the lifestyles that contribute, at least in part, to some natural disasters. We do hunger walks and refuse to change our consumerist lifestyles. We confess with our lips on Sunday morning and hold grudges at work on Monday.
Rather than offer God thousands of rams, Micah calls us to offer a thousand daily acts of love for each other and for the world God loves. "Walking humbly with God" means knowing our bent to self-righteousness. We cannot "play church" or frame our religious life as a game where we keep God in check by performing prescribed duties. The life of faith is a walk that reorients heart and life.
Micah invites us to reframe our lives within God’s story, into a new relationship with a new kind of ruler. Divine love and justice abound in the reign of God. As we enter Advent, we anticipate a new kind of ruler born in a manger. This ruler proclaims a new kind of relationship not based on score-keeping or our ability to appease God, but on divine love and justice. The reign of God.