To act justly
Editor’s note: This is an adaptation of a message delivered during the European Pastors’ Council, held in DeBron, Netherlands, September 11–16, 2007.
O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.
—Micah 6:8, NLT
Listen. The Lord has told you this so many times; this is what He requires. It is not an option; you must do what is right. As Peterson paraphrases in The Message: “Do what is fair and just . . .”
Micah 6:8 has become one of the best-known Old Testament verses, quoted often, even today. An international movement of Christians refers to themselves as people who have adopted the Micah Challenge, in which they dare international leaders to “halve absolute global poverty by 2015!” They want to act justly in today’s world of injustice. They want to heed the words of Micah.
Micah, the prophet
About Micah himself, there is not much to say—no introductory passage about his background or calling. We are told only that he comes from Moresheth, a village some 20 miles south of Jerusalem. And we know that he was a contemporary of Isaiah. Micah addresses mostly the people in the southern kingdom, mainly during the reign of Jotham and Ahaz. With his book structured somewhat differently from most other prophetic books, it contains a cycle of criticism and accusations, on the one hand, and promises of hope and healing, on the other hand. We find this in most prophetic writings; here it is not just one cycle, but it is repeated three times.
However, each time the message is the same: God hates sin (pious behavior cannot make up for it). He hates the rich whose only aim is to get more. He hates dishonesty and violence. He hates the false prophets who proclaim only what people like to hear. He hates the priests who just do their job for money and status.
Micah addresses one issue in particular: the poor being deprived of their property, especially their land. That is serious. That goes against the basic principles of Israelite society. It upsets the entire social fabric. As a result, many are left behind and many are mistreated, especially women and orphans.
Micah has a word from the Lord for the guilty: God does not much look at external pious deeds. He does not weigh and count the sacrifices you bring that give you such a self-righteous feeling. He is not primarily interested in the cultic elements of religion, especially when they have taken on a life of their own.
He wants you to act justly, to do mishpat. That is, to practice the requirements of God’s laws as they relate to other people. This means in actual practice that we are to give back to people what is their due, to deliver the downtrodden and the oppressed, to focus upon what is ethical and relational.
Additionally, He wants us to love mercy—chesed. This emphasizes covenant faithfulness. We must exercise mercy, not from a sense of duty, but because we love doing so. We also are to walk humbly, that is, wisely and circumspectly.
What do we make of Micah’s message about justice and integrity? What are the implications for us? Surely, we are not doing too badly. We aren’t criminals. We have not stolen land from poor people. Most of us do our share for the poor through our taxes and through the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA). Many of us let our vote in local and national elections at least partly depend on the ethical principles of those we vote for. Right?
What do these words “to act justly” mean? First of all, we are asked to act. Not merely to preach, write articles, read books, dialogue, have seminars—but to act. Theory must be put into practice. Acting justly—this presupposes intention. It often demands courage, the willingness to stick your neck out. It means that we refuse easy solutions, avoid procrastination, and not wait until every obstacle is out of the way before we act.
Amid all this is the call for justice. Justice often runs contrary to human interests. It is not primarily about success or profit; rather, it is primarily about principles and people. Acting justly impacts all domains of life: globally, nationally, regionally, and within our churches and families.
We hear a lot about the Christian pursuit of global justice. Perhaps we don’t hear enough about it. Global poverty and inequality are a terrible shame. How can we sleep peacefully when hundreds of millions do not have enough to eat? How can we take a vacation when hundreds of millions have no adequate health care and no decent roof over their heads? How can we feel at ease while our part of the world becomes ever more affluent as other parts remain trapped in poverty?
Even if we do not see the poverty, God does; even though we do not hear the cry of hungry children, God does. Even though we may forget the millions who must find shelter under a few rusty sheets of metal, God doesn’t, not for a moment.
It is no coincidence that the Scriptures refer to poverty more than 2,100 times. And remember, the only time Christ directly condemned people was when, in Matthew 25, He condemned those who overlooked and ignored the weak and the dispossessed.
Bono, the lead singer of the famous rock band U2, doesn’t produce the kind of music I enjoy. But his interest in the poor is a shining example. He is so right, when he said, “God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is in the silence of the mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. . . .God is in the debris of wasted opportunities and lives.”1
This is not just directed at governments and at multinational corporations. It is not just for President Bush and Gordon Brown, the British prime minister—although it is also for them, whether they realize it or not. Politicians do have a heavy responsibility.
Some 50 years ago President Eisenhower said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”2
But it is also a message for each one of us, in particular those who profess to be disciples of Christ. To act justly means that we understand that some things are totally and absolutely wrong; to understand that some things are simply nonnegotiable; to understand that the life we have is a gift from God, and we must be good stewards of that gift; to understand that the resources of this earth must be shared in a fair and equitable way.
We must also be consistent, which means more than merely signing letters for the worldwide watchdog group Amnesty International. It means we must also refrain from investing our savings in funds linked to companies that oppress people or fabricate weapons. And, of course, we must support agencies that help people in need.
Close to home
But acting justly must also touch us closer to home. What about us as a church—local congregation or various conference organizations? Do we act justly? Do we know what it means to share our resources? Or do we only look after our own field? Our own church?
Do we look after the weak and the vulnerable in our congregations? Can our pastors and employees be sure that they are always treated fairly? Do we vote in our church boards for what is right, or do we compromise and often choose the cheapest, easiest, or least controversial? As a pastor, am I sure that acting justly is always my main concern? Or am I sometimes tempted to support the people with means and status, rather than simply doing what is right?
Am I, as an administrator, known as someone who acts fairly and straightforwardly? Who keeps his promises? Who looks after the interests of my workers? Do our workers always get what they are entitled to? Or do we sometimes conveniently fail to inform them of some of their rights and privileges?
As an individual, in my family, toward my spouse, my children, my friends, do I act justly? Can they rely on me? Do I always do what is right and fair?
Remember, this is not just advisable. This is what God requires of you and of me.
Also, acting justly is not always just making sure that justice is served.
Acting justly is not detached from what follows: chesed, which is mercy and loving-kindness. God is not interested in mere outward obedience to a set of rules. He has, indeed, given rules, and these cannot be set aside simply when we feel like it. But Christ taught us to look at principles and to always apply justice blended with mercy.
As an administrator I have never felt that the letter of church policy is the ultimate answer to every question. In some situations a strict application of policy would not be fair. In some cases it would be wrong to go by the letter of the policy book. Acting justly demands not just sternnesss and determination but also intelligence and loving mercy.
What about King Solomon and the two prostitutes? Both women had given birth. One baby died, but both claimed to be the mother of the one who lived. Solomon had to make a decision. He had to act justly. He did.
Read the story. What possible policy book or rule could he have followed there? None? There were no written rules for such a situation. Instead, he used wisdom, and a judgment that couldn’t be codified. And he did it with mercy and justice.
Micah’s message, though written in another time and another place, remains the same. It says to us, to religious people, to people who practice rituals and have traditions and rules and polices: don’t forget the oppressed, the needy, the poor, and the hurting among you.
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Mic. 6:6, 7, NIV).
No, He wants justice, mercy, and loving-kindness to fl ow from those who profess His name.
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1 Paul J. Carling, “Prophets in the Plains,” Saint Luke’s Parish, http://www.saintlukesdarien.org/sermons/02262006.html.
2 Jone Johnson Lewis, “Dwight Eisenhower,” Wisdom Quotes, http://www.wisdomquotes.com/001471.html.