Monday, July 22, 2013

"Micah - Picking and Choosing" - Richard R. Crocker

Richard R. Crocker
Picking and Choosing
Micah 6:6-16
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
July 21, 2013

            Those of you who were raised, as I was, in a Bible-centric culture might be familiar with the old practice called sword drills. We did them often in youth fellowship. The idea was that we each held a Bible, which was our sword, and the leader called out “attention!”, then “present swords”, at which point we held the Bible between our hands, and then the leader called out a random verse of scripture, such as “Micah 6:6”, and then said “Charge!”. The first person who could find that verse stepped forward and read it.  The person who was first most often won.

            The other practice that I sometimes heard about occurred when people wanted guidance about a problem or dilemma and sought it in the Bible. Rather than thinking about what Jesus may have said, or pondering the ten commandments, the practice was simply to open the Bible at random. cover your eyes, and point to a verse. Whatever that verse said was deemed to provide the needed guidance. This technique produced rather haphazard results.

            This way of looking at the Bible both rests upon and perpetuates a uniformly revelatory view of scripture, where very single part is seen as equally revealing the word of God, and those who read the Bible differently are often condemned for “picking and choosing.”  “You can’t pick and choose”, we are told. “You have to believe the Bible from cover to cover, every single word.”

Such a way of reading the Bible can be extremely naïve, unhelpful, and sometimes dangerous. Every part of the Bible is enriched when we know the context of the scripture we are reading, when we do not pick isolated verses, but when we place passages into context, compare them with other passages, and use our minds and spirits to discern the truths that such serious study reveals.  One result of reading the Bible through, from beginning to end,  as some of you have done, is that you may find it very uneven in its helpfulness. Some passages stand out as more helpful, more beautiful, truer, and more useful than other passages.  Some passages seem odd, useless, or even horrible. Christians, for example, pay little attention to the rule in Exodus and Deuteronomy (Exodus 23:19 and Deuteronomy 14:21), which tell us that we should not boil a kid in its mother’s milk, while Jews see this injunction as an important part of their Kosher laws. Christians and Jews alike reject the injunctions to stone criminal offenders, including Sabbath breakers (Leviticus20:2 ff and Numbers 15:35). It is impossible to read the Bible without picking and choosing.

            And nowhere is this more evident than in reading the book of Micah. I chose for our scripture reading for today a passage in Micah that is familiar to all of us.  It is perhaps one of the most familiar passages in scripture - much quoted and much loved, and probably very helpful. But you will have noted that the scripture reading did not end with those familiar words. Rather, it proceeded to the next “saying”, which I would venture to say you have rarely heard and which may not be as helpful to you. Let us consider them both.
            It would probably be helpful today if in fact you took out one of the pew Bibles and opened it to the book of Micah and followed along with some of the passages that I will mention. Now, since you were probably never trained with sword drills, you may have trouble finding the book of Micah. (Like Howard Dean, who said that his favorite book in the new testament was the book of Job, New Englanders are not known for their Biblical literacy). So I will tell you that the book of Micah begins on page 866 in your pew Bibles.
But first, let us remember: Micah prophesied in the southern kingdom, the Kingdom of Judah around 700 BC, The northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen to the Assyrians, and the southern kingdom, under King Hezekiah, had also been invaded by Assyria and made a vassal state. It was a time of turmoil, confusion, anxiety and distress.
            Biblical scholars, using the tools of linguistic and historical analysis, have concluded that the book attributed to Micah actually contains sayings from a number of different writers from different time periods that were all collected into this single book (or scroll). The earliest sayings are near the beginning of the book. The passages after chapter 4 come from a variety of sourses – so  that, ironically, the some of the most well-known passages in the book may not come from Micah himself. That is really not a problem for us, is it? It’s like my house in Lebanon. We say that it was built in 1858.  But in fact, only part of it was built then; additions were made at a later time since they didn’t have indoor plumbing in 1858.  It’s still one house that we live in, and Micah is still one book, - a complex house, a complex document. Would we expect anything else?  After all, most of us know very little about how the books of the Bible were selected, put together and transmitted, do we?  Most of us know very little about architecture and how houses grew.  And most of us don’t care. We just want to have a house to inhabit and a Bible to anchor us in our faith.

            So, if you look in Micah, chapter 6, beginning with verse 6 –  the passage that was read – you see the words that have become a watchword for what constitutes true worship – words that cut to the essence of worship rather than the periphery. “What does the Lord require of us?” Does God require that we bring burnt offerings? Does God require offerings of calves or rams or oil? – Remember that these were some of the offerings customarily made at the temple in Jerusalem. Would God even require that we give up our firstborn child – a practice that was not unknown in the middle east at that time – and a practice that is reflected in the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac. NO – we are told. God doesn’t requires any of these things. Rather, God has told us very simply, that what is required is simply that we do justice, love kindness (or mercy), and that we walk humbly with God. You will note that these words make no mention of religious ritual. What is required is an attitude of humility as well as actions of justice and kindness. Most of us feel comforted and reassured by these words – challenged also to examine our lives, but mainly comforted and encouraged. But then look at  the verses that follow immediately upon this passage.

It is helpful to read them again. They are directed at the city of Jerusalem:

9 The voice of the Lord cries to the city
   (it is sound wisdom to fear your name):
Hear, O tribe and assembly of the city!
10   Can I forget the treasures of wickedness in the house of the wicked,
   and the scant measure that is accursed?
11 Can I tolerate wicked scales
   and a bag of dishonest weights?
12 Your wealthy are full of violence;
   your inhabitants speak lies,
   with tongues of deceit in their mouths.
13 Therefore I have begun to strike you down,
   making you desolate because of your sins.
14 You shall eat, but not be satisfied,
   and there shall be a gnawing hunger within you;
you shall put away, but not save,
   and what you save, I will hand over to the sword.
15 You shall sow, but not reap;
   you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil;
   you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine.
16 For you have kept the statutes of Omri
   and all the works of the house of Ahab,
   and you have followed their counsels.
Therefore I will make you a desolation, and your inhabitants an object of hissing;
   so you shall bear the scorn of my people.

These words are not as familiar to us, are they? Why? because they are not as comforting, or because they are not as helpful? Perhaps because the earlier words are universal, applicable to all times and places, whereas the latter passage is aimed directly at Jerusalem. Micah is famous for having prophesied the fall of Jerusalem, which did indeed happen in 586 BC, when the Babylonians invaded, laid the city waste, destroyed the temple, and took the most prominent of its citizens into captivity into Babylonia. Certainly the words of this prophecy are accurate in anticipating and describing the devastation of that event – so accurate, in fact, that some scholars see them as having been written after the fact. Certainly they were preserved after the fact. But sometimes prophecies like this are seen as applying not only to that time period, but to all. Consider, for example, those who see this prophecy as applying not only to Jerusalem, but to New York City. Does it accurately describe the greed and dishonesty of Wall Street and the financial industry? Does it tell us of the certain doom that will happen unless we repent? Some people think so. Their interpretation of biblical prophecy allows them to do so. I think we may well see these as words of warning to any society in which greed becomes rampant, and when the poor are ignored. That is a proper use of prophecy, but thinking that the events of 9/11 were prophesied in the book of Micah is probably a stretch.

Let us look at one other very famous part of the book of Micah – the prophecy contained in chapter 5, beginning with verse 2. You have all heard it, I am sure.

2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
   who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
   one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
   from ancient days.
3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time
   when she who is in labour has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
   to the people of Israel.
4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
   in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
   to the ends of the earth;
5 and he shall be the one of peace.

Where have you heard this before? From the Gospel of Matthew, of course; we hear it every Christmas – where it is quoted as a prophecy about the birth of the Messiah. When the wise men are seeking Jesus, they ask King Herod where he shall be born. Herod seeks advice from the biblical scholars, and  they quote this prophecy. Obviously, it seems to us to refer to Jesus, the prince of peace, our messiah. It’s right there in the Bible, isn’t it? And certainly the writer of Matthew’s gospel, and Christians ever since have thought of it that way. Many now see it as referring not only to the birth of Jesus, but also to the second coming of Christ.

While Christians are free to view the prophecy this way, it is unlikely that Micah intended the prophecy to be fulfilled 600 or 2600 years after he spoke it. Rather, he (or one of his followers) was speaking a word of hope to a discouraged people – a word that indicated that not all was lost, and that, just as King David was selected by the prophet Samuel in a very unlikely setting in the little town of Bethlehem, there would be another great king yet to come.  We Christians of course hope that Jesus’ birth will usher in a reign of world-wide peace. At the moment, though, after 2000 years, it hasn’t happened. I wonder why? Well, if Christians really acknowledged Jesus as the prince of peace and as their Lord and Master, and if they refused to make war in his name, there would be a lot less war, wouldn’t there?

This brings us back to the problem of picking and choosing when we are reading the bible. At one end of the spectrum are those who believe we should see every single word, every single letter of scripture as fully revelatory, and any problems or contradictions this method produces are due to our lack of understanding. At the other end are those who believe that we should pay attention only to those words and verses that we happen to agree with. Studying the prophets teaches us a different way. Some of their words and images are limited to a time and place which is merely historical. What was deemed acceptable human practice 3000 years ago is not deemed acceptable today. But, at the same time, we should not see our era, and our sensibilities, as the epitome of perfection. In some important ways, we have not advanced at all. I dare say that greed is more fully rampant and more deeply ingrained in our society than it was in the Jerusalem of Micah’s and Amos’s time. Their insistence that greed, violence, and disregard for the poor would lead to the destruction of society was true then, and it’s true now.

            No doubt Micah was right. For all time, for all people, in answering the question, “With what shall I come before the Lord?” the answer is simple -. The Lord does not require our material offerings. What the Lord requires is that we do justice, love mercy (and kindness), and that we walk, every day, in humility before our God.

            Those words are as applicable to us today as they were 2600 years ago. These words grab us. In a way, we don’t pick and choose them; they pick and choose us. Now it’s up to us to live by them. Amen.

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