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For Sunday January 29, 2023

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)


Micah 6:1–8
Psalm 15
1 Corinthians 1:18–31
Matthew 5:1–12

In his book The Prophetic Imagination (1978), Walter Brueggemann suggested that the prophets of Israel were about two things. Their ministry included both criticizing and energizing.

The prophets disturb our status quo, question the reigning order of things, help us see the normal state of affairs in a different light, and advocate a new way of living — all this in every dimension of life: personal, social, spiritual, economic, political. The prophets afflicted the comfortable and the complacent. Don't read the prophets if you don't want a helmet slap.

But the prophets also energized God's people. They comforted the afflicted. They intended to “generate hope, affirm identity, and create a new future. They weren't just negative naysayers; they offered positive affirmation, and encouragement. Yes, the prophets dished out the vinegar; but they also gave us honey for the heart.

The reading this week from Micah offers a good example of both prophetic critique and pastoral comfort. We don't know much about him except that he came from the small town of Moresheth (1:1), about twenty miles southwest of Jerusalem. That places him in the southern kingdom of Judah, although he also directs his prophecy to the northern kingdom of Israel.

 Russian Orthodox icon of the Prophet Micah, 18th century (Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church, Kizhi Monastery, Karelia, Russia).
Russian Orthodox icon of the Prophet Micah, 18th century (Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church, Kizhi Monastery, Karelia, Russia).

Micah was a younger contemporary of Isaiah, Amos and Hosea, for he tells us that he prophesied during the reigns of kings Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. In a tantalizing literary clue, Micah 4:1–3 and Isaiah 2:2–4 are almost identical. One prophet clearly copied from the other, or maybe they both used a third source. There was clearly some collaboration among some of the prophets, and maybe even a prophetic “school.”

Micah's prophecy begins with legal language.  God brings a case against his people. He's “lodging a charge against Israel” (6:2).  The mountains will melt like wax, and the valley will split open like water crashing down a hill. His critique is a word of disaster, destruction, and calamity for both Israel and Judah.

He singles out Samaria and Jerusalem (1:5), the respective capital cities of the northern and southern kingdoms, and by implication the unique centers of influence for their nations. More particularly, he targets the upper crust, the intelligentsia, and the cultural elite of these cities.

Micah calls the nation's religious leaders false prophets. In turn, they give Micah the same treatment that Amos and Jeremiah received: “Do not prophesy about these things; disgrace will not overtake us.”  The religious leaders were peddling the worst sort of false comforts.

Invoking bitter sarcasm, Micah says that the perfect prophet for these people was a liar and a deceiver who said, “I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer” (2:6–11). “If one feeds them then they proclaim peace” (3:5). “Her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money, yet they lean upon the Lord and say, ‘Is not the Lord among us? No disaster will come upon us.’” (3:11).

He then turns to the civic and cultural elite. Micah paints a horrifying picture of political oppression and economic exploitation by the strong and powerful against the weak and dispossessed. “The powerful dictate what they desire — they all conspire together. The best of them is like a brier, the most upright worse than a thorn hedge” (7:3–4). The rich are people of violence (6:12).

These leaders “tear the skin from my people,” and “break their bones in pieces” (3:2–3). They despise justice, distort the right, take bribes as a matter of course, and are “skilled in doing evil with both hands.” Making it worse, the religious leaders sanctioned this; they legitimized the status quo and said it was all God's will.

Contrary to all the false promises, disaster did overtake Israel, just as Micah had predicted. Assyria invaded the north and trampled their forces in 722 BC. Babylon ravaged the southern kingdom of Judah in 586 BC. At this Micah could only weep and wail. He says that he went about barefoot and naked, that he howled like a jackal and moaned like an owl. Why? Because Israel's wound was incurable (1:8–9).

But just when his prophetic critique feels like too much to bear, Micah energizes God's people with words of hope. Broadly speaking, he does this in four ways.

First, he speaks about a remnant. True, disaster befell the nation as a whole, but out of this forced exile there would come a remnant. Eventually, we read about this remnant in the post-exilic prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. Out of the ruins, God will bring a measure of restoration and renewal.

Micah also points Israel to “the last days” (4:1), some time in their far future. In words that echo Isaiah, and that indicate some sort of literary dependence, Micah promises that in some future day “many nations” will come, not just Israel and Judah, and “they will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” This will be a time of comfort not critique, of healing not hell fire, of restoration and not ruin. This future salvation would include a messiah or an anointed one, promised by Micah to come from tiny Bethlehem (5:2, quoted in Matthew 2:6).

 Engraving of the Prophet Micah by Gustave Doré.
Engraving of the Prophet Micah by Gustave Doré.

Then, Micah gives to Israel two of the most memorable passages in all of Scripture. In the first one he reminds them of the nature of true religion. It consists not of outward forms, of rote rituals, but of an inner transformation: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).

And finally, after all of his fire and brimstone, Micah reminds Israel of the never-ending grace of God. In the last two verses of his short prophecy, he offers these same false prophets, drunken religious leaders, corrupt politicians, greedy business people, and self-serving civic fathers a word of forgiveness.

Even today, every year Micah's words are read by Jews on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year in Judaism.

Who is a God like you,
       who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
       of the remnant of His inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever
       but delight to show mercy.
You will again have compassion on us;
       you will tread our sins underfoot
       and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. (7:18–19)

Micah's last word, then, is not one of prophetic critique; it's an evocative reminder of the energizing hope that God offers to all of us. 

Weekly Prayer

Scott Cairns (b. 1954)

Possible Answers to Prayer

Your petitions — though they continue to bear
just the one signature — have been duly recorded.
Your anxieties — despite their constant,

relatively narrow scope and inadvertent
entertainment value — nonetheless serve
to bring your person vividly to mind.

Your repentance — all but obscured beneath
a burgeoning, yellow fog of frankly more
conspicuous resentment — is sufficient.

Your intermittent concern for the sick,
the suffering, the needy poor is sometimes
recognizable to me, if not to them.

Your angers, your zeal, your lipsmackingly
righteous indignation toward the many
whose habits and sympathies offend you —

these must burn away before you’ll apprehend
how near I am, with what fervor I adore
precisely these, the several who rouse your passion.

Scott Cairns, Compass of Affection (Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2006), p. 91.

Scott Cairns (PhD University of Utah) is an American poet, memoirist, librettist, and essayist. He is the Catherine Paine Middlebush Chair in English at the University of Missouri.

Dan Clendenin:

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