September 6, 2015 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
It was garish and ugly. Last week in Rome, a petty gangster received a lavish funeral procession: a hearse carriage drawn by six horses, flower petals dropped from a helicopter, and a brass band playing music from “The Godfather.” There were banners hung outside the church proclaiming, “You conquered Rome, now you will conquer heaven.” Pretty disgusting.
The priest where the funeral took place said he had no control over what happened outside the church building. I doubt the crowd would have listened if he tried to stop the display. Blatant shows of sin are not easily rebuked. Micah’s rebukes were not well received.
Chapter 2 of Micah is a sermon directed against blatant evil. The opening verse echoes Psalm 36:4, about people who lay awake at night making evil plans. It’s hard to imagine that has anything to do with you and me, but look at the rest of verse 1, “When morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power to do.” Let’s dwell on that a bit, doing something simply because we can.
Scientists sometimes tell us they have to explore every avenue of knowledge and its application. If a technology is possible, then it should be tried. No experiment should be forbidden, whether it’s an atom bomb, or a sex drug, or a surveillance drone, or a cloned human being. “We can do it, so we will do it,” seems like all the justification needed. But before we pat ourselves on the back that you and I are not scientists like that, listen.
Sometimes all we mean by saying that a thing is in our power is that is legal. If we have a legal right to an activity, then we will do it, whether it is a same-sex marriage or just a man and woman living together without marriage, whether it is gambling away a paycheck or clicking on another porn site, or whether it is simply making a boatload of money by financial manipulation or by selling useless products or by exploiting tax loopholes. If it’s in our power, if it’s allowed by the law, then it must be O.K.
Micah was especially upset by economic sin. Verse 2 is about those who break the tenth commandment, coveting what belongs to others, and then break the eighth commandment by seizing and taking away that property, even if the seizures and oppression were technically legal. In ancient Israel, a piece of land was a family’s identity, an inheritance which was a gift from God. But in the 8th century the economic policy of the rich and powerful was a program of land grabbing, breaking up small family farms and fields and assembling huge estates for a few nobility in the country.
We know the story of the land grab well enough ourselves, whether it’s the taking of business property along West 11th for the EmX project or merging family farms into large corporate conglomerates or our nation’s history of stealing land from this continent’s native inhabitants. It doesn’t really matter what your politics are, coveting and theft of property are sins we all both abhor and share some guilt in.
Isaiah 5:8 echoes Micah, saying “Woe to those who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you…” God has a judgment against persons and families who take what others have in order to assemble large fortunes. So verse 3 here in Micah 2 announces God’s judgment against such a “family.”
Take it out of the country and put it into the city. Picture a mafia “family” like I started with, pulling together control and influence over a town, or a developer buying up small businesses and homes in order to control a larger and larger area of the community, or a corporation swallowing up private practices so as to fix prices for medical care.
God Himself judges the land grabbers. Verse 3 is God speaking, “I am devising against this family an evil from which you cannot remove your necks…” And verse 4 has them wailing, “We are bitterly ruined; the Lord alters the inheritance of my people; how he removes it from me! Among our captors he parcels out our fields.” God will take away all that falsely acquired property and divide it up again, this time among enemy conquerors.
Verse 5 pictures the time at the end of the chapter, when God will help and restore the faithful who are left, but it won’t be any good for the land grabbers. Even if there’s a repeat of Joshua dividing up the land by lot and giving each of God’s people a share, no one will do that for these families. They will remain ruined and landless.
As I said, they did not like this message. They didn’t want to hear Micah. Verse 6 quotes those who object, with a little irony, “‘Do not preach,’—thus they preach…” Like so many folks today, they don’t want to be preached at. So they preached that message.
How often have you heard, “Don’t preach to me” (or “at me,” or as a T-shirt evidently says, “on me”)? Children say it to parents (as in a Madonna song that sings ‘Don’t preach’) and irreligious people say it in general to religious people around them (hence the T-shirt). It’s a message preached to those who offer spiritual instruction or persuasion, but it’s also a message declining any moral instruction. “Don’t preach” is a way to say, “I don’t care what you think is right or wrong, I’m not going to listen.”
When I received my Ph.D. from Notre Dame, then Cardinal Bernadin spoke at the commencement ceremony, talking about, among other things, some of the economic injustices in the world. When my Catholic father-in-law heard it, he said that the Cardinal should stick to his own business in the Church and leave economics and such matters to others. In other words, “Don’t preach to me about that.”
Many American Christians agree that the only concern of preachers should be private, individual morality. Public morality should not be addressed from the pulpit. “Preachers should not talk about politics,” is the message preached by many a churchgoer. Neither Micah nor the rest of the biblical prophets buy into that message. They were led by God to challenge injustice at every level of society and to call the rich and powerful to repentance. We heard it from James this morning in his command not to give more honor to the rich in the church and his warning about wealth in general, “Is it not the rich who oppress you?”
Micah’s audience was the same as many Americans. They did not want to hear any censure of their economic policy or plans for wealth, nor any message of judgment on it all, “one should not preach of such things…” and they went on to say they didn’t believe it anyway, “…disgrace will not overtake us.” Verse 7 offers their spiritual justification for their unwillingness to hear, “Should this be said, O house of Jacob? Is the Lord’s patience exhausted? Are these his doings?”
Wealthy and corrupt Israelites thought God would always be kind and patient with them. That looming threat of foreign invasion could not be His doing. They did not want to hear preaching like that. Maybe you remember in 2002 how even Christians came down hard on any preacher who dared suggest that attack was a judgment from God.
God’s answer to “Don’t preach” begins in the last part of verse 7 and continues until the end of the chapter, “Do not my words do good to one who walks uprightly?” God says that when the message comes from Him and it’s heard by those who want to listen and do what is right, then the preaching of His Word does good. We heard James tell us again to not just listen to the Word, but to do it. Faith without works is dead. And when we have a living and active faith in God’s Word, it does us and does others good. That’s how Micah 2 ends, but first there are more specific condemnations from God.
Verse 8 speaks against those who treat their own people like enemies, taking even clothes away from those who simply want to live in peace. Verse 9 blasts those who are leaving women and children homeless and shattering their hope in God. Verse 10 tells them that the same is now happening to them. All that land they acquired is no longer theirs, no longer a place for them to rest, but is now a place which “uncleanness,” sin, has ruined completely. Their greed which made others homeless now leaves them homeless.
Honestly, I don’t now how it all applies to you and me. But it makes me wonder about my own covetousness and wish to acquire money and property. Even if I do not see any direct injustice to others when I want and get more stuff, I worry about it. I ask God to show me what I really need and what to let go of. I’m not very good at seeing that.
So, ironically, last week I ordered and got something else, a cheap, used copy of a book I had and read in college, but evidently loaned or lost along the way, Beyond the Rat Race by Art Gish, written in 1973. Long before it was cool or popular, Gish invited Christians to live more simply, have less, and depend more on God and on Christian community. I wanted to refresh my memory of his prophetic challenge to look at our lives the way Micah might look at them, to care less about things and more about others.
One thing I remembered from Gish’s book over all the years was his reason for not wearing a tie. It may be less true now, but he had a point when he wrote, “most of the evil in our world is consciously planned and organized by men wearing neckties.” It’s a typical line for a prophet, radical, sarcastic, like God’s sarcasm through Micah here in verse 11 of our text, “If someone were to go about uttering empty falsehoods saying, ‘I will preach to you of wine and strong drink,’ such a one would be the preacher for this people.”
Micah’s sarcasm warns us against listening only to sermons we like, only to want we want to hear. A member who recently moved away said to me soon after he came to Valley Covenant and several times later, “I don’t come here to get my ears tickled.” He was referring to Paul’s prophecy in II Timothy 4:3 that a time was coming when “people will not put up with sound doctrine, but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires.” That was Micah’s time and it’s now our time. Let us guard ourselves against only listening to those who scratch us where we like.
God’s message of hope began in verse 7, that His word will do good for us, if we only listen and do what it says, like James tells us, even when we do not like it. In our Gospel lesson that Syrophoenician woman heard an unfriendly and harsh word from Jesus. She was merely a dog, not one of God’s people. But she didn’t turn and walk away. She listened and stayed and asked for help, even for a few crumbs falling from the table. And Jesus gave her what she really needed.
Micah closes this chapter with a message some Bible scholars say doesn’t actually belong here. They think it was stuck in to soften the harsh judgment or that perhaps it’s more quotes from the rich and powerful of Jerusalem, expressing more foolish confidence that God will wink His eye at their sins. But verses 12 and 13 are just what they sound like, the promise of God to gather His people into His flock, under a Shepherd and King who loves them. There will be survivors of the coming disaster and “I will set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture.”
Verse 12 calls God “the one who breaks out.” It’s a term used of God’s action many times in the Old Testament. The Lord “breaks out,” suddenly appears among His people. Here He is breaking out to lead them out of captivity, to bring them home. The promise is that God will break out to save those who listen to His word, even when it’s hard.
Preaching God’s Word does good when we listen. I preach to myself as much as I do to you. What do I have that I can give away? How does having much hurt those who have little? How can I do what James says and not turn my back on a brother or sister in need? How am I like that poor dog woman who came to Jesus, desperately in need of crumbs of grace? Those are the questions I hear when I hear the preaching today. What do you hear?
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2015 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj