It’s 1953. A bushy-haired man arrives at the train station in Chicago. He has come to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. He steps off the train and immediately is surrounded by a welcoming committee and a bunch of reporters. He politely acknowledges those who came to greet him, then excuses himself and walks away. That’s puzzling. Everyone watches as he heads across the terminal and picks up two bags that an elderly Black woman has been struggling with. He takes them to her bus for her, wishes her a good journey, and returns to his crowd of admirers, apologizing for having kept them waiting. In the next day’s newspaper one member of the welcoming committee is quoted as saying, “That’s the first time I ever saw a sermon walking.”
The sermon walking was Albert Schweitzer. The topic of the sermon was service to others. And caring for widows. And most especially humility.
Would any committee member have offered to carry the bags? Would any committee member have been impressed at all if a Redcap or some nonentity had helped the woman? Maybe not. But he was certainly impressed by someone of the stature of Albert Schweitzer stooping to carry those bags to the woman’s bus.
How about Micah? Was he of similar stature? Micah was one of a quartet of major characters who produced what they call the Golden Age of Hebrew prophecy during the latter half of the 8th century BCE. One was Hosea, a gentleman farmer. Another was Amos, who owned sheep and had a fig farm. The third was Isaiah, an aristocrat.
And then there was Micah, merely a small-town guy, maybe an artisan of some kind. Of the four prophets, Micah would have been the closest to the poverty line; he clearly demonstrates sympathy for the poor.
He lived in a small town, but traveled from time to time to Jerusalem to deliver his prophecies. Not that they were always accurate. One time he proclaimed that Judah was about to be annihilated. But that didn’t happen. Another time he warned that the Assyrians were about to conquer all of Judah. But that didn’t happen either.
Then Micah changed his focus from big political warlike events to the urban domestic scene where he saw corruption within not only the government of Judah, but in everyday life as well. Morals were appallingly low. Officials were unashamedly dishonest.
Micah was positive that because the nation had lost her moral integrity, because she had become so sinful, so soft, she was ripe for conquest. He was determined to devote his life to the task of strengthening the moral fiber of his people, being sure that moral reform was their only defense.
He convinced the king at the time, Hezekiah, to fear the Lord and to entreat the favor of the Lord.
That made sense to Hezekiah. So he instituted sweeping reforms, destroying semi-pagan high places and demolishing images worshiped not only by adherents of pagan idols but actually worshiped by believers in Yahweh as well.
Micah didn’t have as much success with Judah, where social inequity and idolatry flourished. He warned the people of Judah that, like Samaria, the Assyrians (they were the black hat bad guys) would conquer them if they didn’t reform. Guess what. The people of Judah didn’t listen to Micah.
Micah was so distressed at having been brushed off that he resolved to commit an appalling act. He stripped himself naked, which in Biblical language means that he wore only a loincloth. Total nudity was so despicable to the Jews that no faithful Jew would ever have resorted to it, even to make a point for God. So loin-cloth clad and barefoot like a slave, he went around lamenting like a mourner over the sins of Judah. While he condemned the ethical laxity, at the same time he did offer a message of hope. He prophesied that after her punishment, Judah would repent and return to Yahweh. He shared a vision in which Yahweh and the king were leading the people of Judah in triumph.
Micah then focused his attention specifically on the leaders of Judah, the prophets, and the aristocracy. He accused the prophets of prophesying what they were paid to say. He condemned the aristocracy for corruption, idolatry, and their oppression of the poor. He made clear his opinion of some of their past kings – like Ahaz whom he condemned as having been so corrupt, so evil, that he even sacrificed his own son to pagan gods.
Micah claimed that the geographical center of Judah’s corruption was Jerusalem, which was the heart of all Judean economy and politics, and he prophesied the destruction of the city and of the temple – he predicted that Jerusalem would become a heap of rubble, the Temple Hill a mound overgrown with thickets. A century and a half later, that prophecy was indeed fulfilled.
A couple of kings, specifically Jotham and Hezekiah, did listen to him, which suggests that Micah must have had an amazing aura of divine authority. Such a simple, small-town man, exerting such influence on the royal leadership of Jerusalem.
Probably the best-known of Micah’s prophecies is also one of the most loved passages of the Old Testament; it represents the spiritual simplicity that Micah espoused. “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
That expressed a new way of life then, a new way of being in relationship. It’s a great way to deal with life now, a great way to be in relationship with others and with God. To enact justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God are not single acts that we check off the list and be done with. Periodic nods to equity do not constitute a faithful life.
How do we see Micah’s story in our own time? We might see our own country suffering from some of the issues that caused Micah to strip naked and prophesy in Jerusalem. We might look at different issues and candidates and wonder if new relationships, new kinds of leaders, would make Micah put his clothes back on. Would political leadership have enough influence to eliminate corruption, idolatry, and the oppression of the poor?
Or do we ourselves, personally, need to do that?
Would political leadership eliminate score-keeping?
Would it eliminate blame-placing, not only on the political level but also on the everyday living level. “It wasn’t my fault. He wasn’t watching where he was going.” “He hit me first!” “Not my fault – it was God’s will.”
Or do we need to take responsibility ourselves?
How about bargaining? What will it take to get God to let me have . . . that car, that job, to let me get ahead? If I just go to church every Sunday, then surely God will make my son – my spouse – my neighbor – be better, or wiser, or nicer to me. If only [this] // then God will [that]. . . But going to church every Sunday should not be a bargaining chip for getting God to do something for us.
We send checks for disaster relief. But do we examine our own lifestyles? In what ways to do we contribute to some natural disasters? Do our consumerist lifestyles impact our communities adversely? What are we willing to give up for the good of society? For the good of humanity?
We confess with our lips on Sunday morning. But do we hold grudges on Tuesday? And Wednesday? And Thursday?
Rather than offer God a thousand 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 being fully conscious of our nose-in-the-air self-righteousness. We can’t “play church” or frame our religious life as a game where we keep God in check by performing prescribed duties and marking them off the scorecard on our clipboard.
Micah invites us to reframe our lives within God’s story, within a right relationship with God and our neighbors. Divine love and justice abound in the reign of God. No score-keeping, no appeasing God – just divine love and justice.
Amen to that