Last summer I was cooking up enough pork carnitas to feed about 40 people at a family reunion. A by-product of this cooking extravaganza was fat. Through my kitchen window I see a bird feeder so the idea came to me to use the lard as a base for homemade suet. I added some birdseed and peanut butter and slopped the mix into a pan. After a day in the fridge I triumphantly took it out to the feeder. I took great delight in knowing I was giving our feathered friends some substantial calories. I set it on the flat platform of the feeder and went inside, contented that I had done my little part for creation.
My dog is the greatest beneficiary of my avian caretaking. Food scraps inevitably fall to the ground and Hunter, true to his name, is the first to realize that there’s food to be had. I figured the suet was a safe bet since it wouldn’t fall to the ground like bread crumbs. But I was wrong. Hunter had been out for an unusually long time the day after I served up suet in my front yard. I looked out the front door and he licking the ground under the feeder. I seemed to forget that, in the July sun, meat fat would not stay solid. In fact, it had melted and was dripping off the edge of the feeder at a pretty impressive rate. Hunter was all in! As he licked it off the ground, more of it dripped onto his head and back. I had to pull him away from the feast and immediately dump him in the utility sink to suds out the fat. I used Dawn detergent which clean up wildlife after oil spills! The yummy smells of the carnitas ingredients were not nearly as appealing when mixed with dog fur and dish soap. It took about a week before the aroma left him and any place he rested. My very noble efforts at feeding the birds met with complete failure. I had to scoop the remaining lump of suet off the feeder, throw it away, and come up with a better plan for keeping the birds of the air nourished.
Sometimes our finest efforts at using available resources in compassionate ways can be messy and completely miss the mark! Do we give up? Or do we try again?
I wonder what God expects of us? Can we ever be good enough? Does God have a clipboard, grading us on every gesture of kindness and failed attempt at goodness? The prophet, Micah, talks about what it takes to restore and maintain our relationship with God. The list gets absurd: ten thousand rivers of oil and thousands of rams. What if we went to church every week and said grace every night before dinner? What would earn us enough brownie points to win God’s favor?
The passage uses legal language. Micah’s exploration of divine justice was presented as a lawsuit. God proclaimed that the jury would be comprised of those who had been around a long time: the mountains and the hills. They were around when God first made the covenant with the people. They had witnessed the recent misbehavior of the Israelites. The offenses were listed and the verdict hung in the balance.
Micah was a contemporary of Isaiah, known as an advocate for the oppressed. He was a prophet in the 8th century BC when the situation of the Israelites shifted dramatically. They were such an insignificant segment of the population of the Ancient Near East that foreign rulers ignored them for quite awhile. They prospered and were fruitful and multiplied. But the tide changed when a new king came along who didn’t like the Jews. He defeated ten of the twelve tribes of Israel in 721BC. They were scattered over hundreds of miles and served as slaves. It was during this time that Micah prophesied to them, warning them to be faithful exclusively to God. As the Jews plummeted from prosperity to desperation, they cried out for Divine protection.
I knew a man—let’s call him Bob—who was the legal guardian for an old blind man. Let’s call him Hubert. Bob had written out countless checks for Hubert for 14 years. Hubert had more than a million dollars in his combined accounts. Bob confessed to me his struggle with his thoughts: This guy isn’t going to last too much longer. He could cut me in on a tiny percentage of his will, right? I’ve been a faithful and honest caretaker. It certainly won’t hurt him!
I wonder if we approach our relationship with God like that at times? I’ve been faithful. I’ve helped others. You’ve got a lot to give, God, so what do you say? Then God gives us less than we thought we deserved. The reward is something different from what we expected. We are challenged to be clear about why we give. Do we have pure motives behind our service? Even when we do, selfishness and self-righteousness easily creep in.
Micah provides insight into the nature of God and the way we relate to each other. Some of this minor prophet’s writings answer our most profound questions, particularly those focused on justice. In these verses we pick up on the emotions of God. The Creator of the universe seems hurt and pleads with the beloved people to remember all that has been done for them in the past. Surely if they remember those acts of kindness and the moments of rescue, they would not stray from God’s ways? Gratitude would keep them on the right track, right?
We’ve all cried out to God, “That’s not fair!” We levy accusations that God is not just because our lives have not followed the course we expected. If our co-worker seemed to be given a miraculous cure from disease, why hasn’t that happened for our brother who is such a good Christian? Does God enter into the fray of our human existence, arbitrarily disbursing gifts to some and ignoring others? Or is God happily perched far above the earth, letting us chart our own course? Maybe there is a middle alternative?
Micah was dealing with folks who had sinned egregiously against God. Micah didn’t sidestep the fact that God can get angry. Like any good parent, God could not overlook the Jews blatant disobedience and rejection of a sacred way of life. God responds with tremendous hurt. It’s like the parent of a wayward teenager who cries out, “If you only knew how I’ve sacrificed for you!” Or, an introspective cry from the gut, “What did I do that she would do this to me?”
Does anything suffice to move God to accept us, particularly when we have strayed far from our holy calling? Micah assures us that God doesn’t hang onto that clipboard, downgrading us for each impure thought. God is interested in the way we live our everyday lives. Acts of piety must stem from a motive of love otherwise they are empty. So what does God require of us?
Through the prophet, Micah, God offers three requirements that guide our interaction with each other and our Maker. The first is to act justly. Justice is a dynamic concept, something that people do. We are to work for fairness and equity for all. Our courts are to dole out fair sentences. The second requirement is kindness. The Hebrew word is Hesed which takes at least three of our words to translate it well: love, loyalty, and faithfulness. We are not to serve God out of a sense of duty or fear, any more than we would marry someone for those same reasons. We are to LOVE God and be loyal in our dealings with each other. Finally, we are asked to walk humbly with our God. We submit our will to the will of God. I love how our life pilgrimage is likened to a long walk with our Maker. Micah assures us that God wants our whole lives, not just a lengthy notarized checklist of good deeds. The apostle Paul phrased it like this to the early Christians in Rome: “Present your bodies as living sacrifices…” Each day, we live out our love for God through all we think, do and say. It sounds both simple…and very, very hard.
I think of a family who had two children in high school and one in the eighth grade. Only one of the teens had their license so the parents were constantly shuffling kids from school activities, to sports and lessons. All the while, they kept up with the demands of their careers. Each evening they mapped out the plan for the next day so that everyone could get to their engagements in a timely manner. The strain of the family schedule was so evident that their youngest asked to have a meeting with both parents present. They sat in the living room and the twelve-year old offered a well-rehearsed speech. He told them that he was willing to forego the great privilege of being a part of the community youth choir so that they would have one less taxi request several evenings of each week. He assured them that he would continue to cherish music but didn’t have to be a trained musician. He reminded them that it would also save them some money. The parents managed to keep from smiling. They knew that their son dragged into choir practice each week. But they also knew that he came home humming the songs he rehearsed and thoroughly enjoyed singing in concerts. The motive behind his alleged sacrifice was not, shall we say, pure! The mother politely thanked him for finely arguing his case. They would have to talk about it, she told the boy. But the father spoke up and said he had sufficiently considered the case and the answer was “No.” Their son would continue to sing and his willing sacrifice was not required. The boy’s shoulders sagged as he walked away.
Sacrifice is not difficult when we are grateful for the gifts God has given us. We sacrifice readily when we know that God does not require repayment. Rather than despairing of the debt we owe for the countless blessings we’ve been given, we worship our Creator by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God. These are the requirements that gave the Israelites hope in the face of their sin. This is what God requires of us hundreds of years later. Our hearts overflow with joy when we care for those around us. Excited about our spiritual gifts, we serve others with glad hearts. Micah reminds us that God wants us–our whole being. Pure and simple!
Or is it?