This summer we have been spending each week talking about precedents- themes that we find throughout the Bible that point to experiences we are having in modern times. It never ceases to astonish me that the stories of our scriptures are always relevant to our lives today.
And that brings us to today’s precedent: justice. We see God’s demand for justice from the beginning of our scriptures until the very end. So naturally, God demands justice in our lives today.
But I find that justice is one of those tricky words. You know those tricky, churchy words that we use? Justice. Mercy. Grace. Words that are hard to explain at face value. And I think they are difficult to explain because they are oriented in our hearts. They aren’t simple to understand because they aren’t necessarily tangible actions.
Nevertheless, justice is what God requires of us- so we should probably figure out what justice is and what it’s not. We should concern ourselves with why justice has been important to God from the beginning, and why it’s so important still.
When I think about the idea of justice, my mind immediately wanders to the words of the prophets. The prophet, Micah had a lot to say about justice- which is a message that the people of Israel seem to have forgotten. It’s important to remember that the role of the Biblical prophet was to point out where the Israelites had lost their faithfulness. It was their job to deliver a message to those who’d forgotten how much God had done for them. Micah’s message is exactly that.
At the beginning of chapter 6, Micah quotes the Israelites as asking what is required of them. What does God want from them so that they might not be judged harshly? What will it take?
Will it take sacrifices of burnt offerings? What about thousands of rams? Or maybe it will require even more- sacrifices of rivers of oil? These are all things the Israelites own- from small things an average person could offer God to things that only the wealthiest king might possess?
Just like the Israelites, we often find ourselves wondering what it will take to be in God’s favor. What does God want from us? Does God require us to make sacrifices of our stuff? Donating used clothes or furniture to charities? More canned food drives? Write bigger checks? Or maybe, Micah says, the Israelites need to offer their first born. That seems like the biggest sacrifice of all.
And while none of those sacrifices are inherently bad, Micah wants us to be certain that they are not what God requires of us.
Although Israel seems uncertain of what God expects, Micah reminds them in verse 8, “God has shown you! You don’t have to guess or wonder- in fact, you should already know! The entire Torah- those first 5 books of the Bible tell you exactly what God requires of you! God doesn’t want any THING! God wants US! God wants our lives to reflect the command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.
So, what does that look like? Micah tells the Israelites- and us- to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.
And throughout his message, Micah reiterates that justice is something we DO. Too often we hear the word justice, and we believe that it means we should seek out justice for ourselves. We want “justice served” when we feel like we’ve been wronged. We want justice when we feel like we deserve something more than we’ve been given. But that is definitely not the type of justice to which God is calling us.
God is calling us to justice that works for the equity of all people. God is asking us to advocate for the powerless. God is requiring us to turn things upside down so that the poor and oppressed are raised up. God is, in no way, asking us to insure our own wealth so that we get what we deserve. God is not asking for our stuff so that God can love us more. God is asking us to live differently. God does not ask for religiosity. Doing justice is not checking off a list of good deeds.
And for all of you who think the Old Testament and the New Testament teach vastly different things, this is where I remind you that this Old Testament lesson is also the lesson we are taught by the life of Jesus Christ. Jesus was angered by the injustices he saw in the system around him. He was perpetually disappointed in those who sought out their own success over the opportunity to lift up others. Jesus was motivated by what he saw around him- he was motivated to create change in the culture and the system. He knew that justice could not occur while everyone was happy with the status quo. That is the same lesson the Micah shares with us today.
Practicing justice is caring for those who are hurting or in need- not when it’s convenient or requires minimal sacrifice, but when it stretches us and upsets our own levels of comfort. Practicing justice is opening our eyes to the world around us and seeing the disparities between the poor and those of us with economic privilege. It’s opening our eyes to those who are powerless when so many of us have influence, opportunity and hope- whether we worked for those things or they have been given to us. Practicing justice is turning our hearts, souls, minds and strength toward turning these norms upside down.
Right now, justice means wearing masks when we are around others- for their protection, if not our own. Justice means advocating for our teachers and students as they face a school year that feels complicated and uncertain. Justice means educating ourselves on issues that are impacting our neighbors every day- like the fact that due to changes slated to occur in our law, nearly half of home renters in North Carolina face potential eviction in the upcoming month unless they are able to scrape together money to pay their rent after job losses, increased childcare costs and other Covid-related struggles.
But, all the time, justice means doing the work to understand systemic racism in our nation, and then doing our part to break down the power structures that have created it. All the time, justice means supporting and advocating for access to good mental health care for all who are suffering from depression, addiction, anxiety and other diseases. All the time, justice means welcoming and affirming the LGBTQ community into our own. All the time, justice means seeking ways to end sex trafficking and the manipulation and oppression of children around the world.
Micah goes on to tell the Israelites that their wealthy are full of violence & lies. And while we like to believe ourselves to be relatively peaceful people, it’s important to consider that the violence Micah speaks of isn’t necessarily physical violence. It’s the violence we are guilty of committing against another’s personhood. When we deny who someone is based on any criteria that makes us uncomfortable, we are committing violence against them. When we make choices, even unknowingly, that affect the welfare of others, we are inciting violence against them. And any time that we are choosing to believe ourselves to be superior to any other, we are telling ourselves a lie.
Micah tells us- through his message to the Israelites- that we are welcome to choose a life of luxury. We are free to choose a life that demands what we feel we have earned. We have the ability to rely on our own power, our own wealth, or own sense of right and wrong. But Micah says, “You will eat, but not be satisfied, and there will be a gnawing hunger within you.”
Father Richard Rohr tells us, “Once we are freed from our narcissism that thinks we are the center of the world, or that our rights and dignity have to be defended before other people’s rights and dignity, we can finally live and act with justice and truth.”
When we choose to depend on what makes us happy, or on what we feel we’ve deserved, we are giving up the ability to fully experience the abundant life God promises us. When others are around us are hurting, we cannot truly claim that we are whole.
When others struggle while we thrive, we cannot be fulfilled. If we listen to the Holy Spirit’s urging, we will sense that hunger inside us. We will know that we are incomplete.
And so, I wonder what this stirs in you today. In what areas of your own life might you seek to DO justice- not just hope that justice exists, not desire justice for yourself- but DO justice on behalf of those who are struggling? This is a precedent worth considering, because it is a message God has been trying to deliver to us since the beginning. The individual actions may look different, but the calling remains the same.
How will you do justice right now- in this time? Will you choose to follow in a long line of those who’ve heard and responded to God’s message to do justice? The precedent has been set.