Sunday, August 31, 2008

Justice, Mercy and Humility: The Life of Loyal Love

Top 12 Scripture Texts: Number 8C
Micah 6:8
Bob Rakestraw

This is the last of three postings on Micah 6:8—one of the most impressive and helpful verses in all of the Bible on the topic of how we are to live as the people of God. Last time we looked at God’s desire for us to act justly. Here we will consider the Lord’s will for us “to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Mercy is the second key component of the threefold way to a good and happy life. It is not simply mercy that God desires, however, but loving mercy. All three legs of the stool of God’s will—acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with him—are all virtues that involve action. The good life, which is also the happy life, is the active life as well. Since God is active (some theologians refer to him as actus purus—“pure act”), he desires his children to be active as well. We are created for meaningful activity. Just because many people go to excess in their activities—leaving little or no time for contemplation with God and substantial relationships with others—does not justify a life that lacks consistent service and benevolence.

The Meaning of Mercy

The Hebrew word for “mercy” in Micah 6:8 (hesed) is a word rich with meaning, and has been the object of much study by biblical scholars. It is used about 250 times in the Old Testament, and in the NIV Bible version about half of these occurrences have the translation “love.” Other translations are “kindness,” “unfailing love,” “great love,” and “mercy.” The word has a strong sense of loyalty and faithfulness in it, and has been understood by many scholars as “loyal love.” One version translates Micah 6:8 as “to love loyalty” (NEB), while another has “to show constant love” (GNB). Hesed is a covenant word, and speaks of the proper covenant behavior and solidarity one partner in the covenant expresses toward the other. It can refer to God’s relations to us, our relations to God, or our relations with one another.

Because of the depth of the word hesed, to translate it simply as “love” does not seem strong enough to me. Perhaps this is because the word “love” has become so diluted in today’s world, and means little more than warm feelings, liking something or someone, or even casual sex (“make love”). I am impressed with the strong covenant sense of loyalty and consistency in the word. God has made a covenant with his people, and therefore he remains true to us whatever circumstances may come. And he desires this covenant love from us and between us as the people of God.

Loving the Way of Mercy

It is significant that God urges us “to love mercy.” A merciful, kind, and loyal way of life is not something that we should merely tolerate or endure, but we are to love it! The form of the word translated “love” in this expression “to love mercy” is an intense noun used dozens of times to speak of human-to-human love, sometimes sexual love. It is used in the Song of Solomon: “love is as strong as death, … many waters cannot quench love” (8:6-7). God’s people are to have a deep, strong love of mercy. In fact, we are to be like God in this respect: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36). I was delighted when I discovered recently in the next chapter after our text of the month, these words addressed to God, “You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy” (7:18). The people of God are to love and delight in mercy, because this is the nature of our God!

Because of my poor health, I am the recipient of numerous acts of mercy. I deserve none of these, nor do I expect them. I often feel embarrassed by them. I have neighbors filled to overflowing with hesed, who graciously mow our lawn, shovel our snow, and do numerous fix-up jobs around our house, sometimes spending many hours a day out of pure compassion. When I think of them I think of the words of Jesus, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (Mt. 5:7).

The Works of Mercy

Over the centuries of church history, seven traditional “corporal works of mercy” have been recognized: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, giving shelter to the stranger, visiting the sick, ministering to prisoners, and burying the dead. All but the last of these are mentioned by Jesus in his teaching on the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:35-46). Here we find Jesus’ gripping words: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me,” and “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

There are also seven traditional “spiritual works of mercy:” converting the sinner, instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving injuries, and praying for the living and the dead. While the scriptures (the 66 commonly accepted books of the Protestant Bible) nowhere exhort us to pray for the dead, the other spiritual works of mercy are all biblically-based. [Prayer for the dead is mentioned in the apocrypha, in 2 Maccabees 12:42-45.]

When we think of neighbor-love, mercy is, along with justice, one of the two major qualities God desires of his people. I love studying both virtues and it stirs me when I see both qualities together in the scriptures, woven together in a powerful collage. Even the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are blended together, as are exhortations to avoid sins of omission in the areas mentioned. Notice the godly harmony in the following words. “This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In you hearts do not think evil of each other.’” (Zechariah 7:9-10; see also Romans 12:9-21). I am totally overwhelmed by the comprehensiveness, graciousness and depth in this scripture!

Choosing to Walk Humbly with God

Finally, in Micah 6:8, we find one more thing that is “good” and that God “requires of us,” namely “to walk humbly with your God.” I have thought for many years that this expression corresponds with the command in the Great Commandment to “love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength.” In other words, acting justly and loving mercy correspond to the command to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and walking humbly with God corresponds with loving God. Both the horizontal and vertical dimensions of true Christian love are summarized well in Micah 6:8.

Some Bible scholars suggest other translations for “to walk humbly with your God,” such as “walk prudently (TNIV note), or “walk circumspectly (NASB margin), but the best brief rendering seems to be “walk humbly.” Literally, the Hebrew says, “to cause yourself to walk closely and modestly with God.” The Hebrew word is used only here and in Proverbs 11:2: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” Micah 6:8 shows deliberate action on our part. We are to actively pursue a humble walk with God, as we see in James 4:10 (“Humble yourselves before the Lord”) and Luke 14:11 (“Those who humble themselves will be exalted”). One of the best ways to humble ourselves is to learn from the life of Jesus (Matthew 11:29), and another is to spend time reverently in the Word of God. This latter guideline is suggested in Isaiah 66:2: “This is the one to whom I will look [or, “the one I esteem,” NIV], to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word” (NRSV).

To be humble is to see one’s shortcomings and defects, and to be very much aware of our need for divine grace and mercy. It is to see oneself accurately, not with pride or a superior attitude toward others. A humble person is modest and unpretentious, and, even though he or she may have considerable assets intellectually, financially, physically, socially, or in other ways, he is not boastful or self-centered. This one, God says, is the kind of person he esteems. Furthermore, Micah speaks of our humble life with God as walking, and not only that, but walking with God. It has always been helpful for me to think of the Christian life as a daily walk with the Lord himself.

I want to close this posting with one of the most beautiful texts in the Bible, speaking powerfully of our walk with God, and his walk with us. May this be a grace-filled benediction to you always!

"For this is what the high and lofty One says—he who lives forever, whose name is holy: ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite’" (Isaiah 57:15, NIV).

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Justice, Mercy and Humility: All That God Expects

Top 12 Scripture Texts: Number 8B
Micah 6:8

Bob Rakestraw

How can we know what God expects of us? Since God is morally perfect, it may seem that his list of expectations is infinitely long and impossible to keep. But we need not despair. The Bible (see, e.g., 2 Cor. 5:14-21; Gal. 3:1-14) makes it clear that Jesus Christ, by giving his life for all people, set us free from any system of law-keeping based on human effort. All we need to do is come to the foot of Christ’s cross in repentance and faith, acknowledge our innumerable violations of God’s requirements, and receive Christ and his forgiveness along with freedom from guilt, shame and despair.

I came to Christ in this way at the age of 19, and have never turned back. If I should die today I know I would be welcomed into the presence of God forever, not because of my inherent goodness or obedience to God’s laws, but because of the saving work of Jesus at Calvary, who died in my place for my sins.

Living from Gratitude

Even with this glorious freedom and hope of eternal life, however (in fact, because of it), I still have a strong desire to obey God’s will fully. Because I am assured of everlasting glory with God, I desire more than ever, out of gratitude and for the sake of my own happiness, to live totally for my Savior. I can’t imagine any other life. This is why I am so excited about our scripture of the month: Micah 6:8.

In our last posting we introduced this verse and some of its background. Now I wish to develop the text a bit more.

He has showed you, O [mortal] 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. (NIV)

In the first line the prophet speaks of the good life, which we discussed in our last posting as being tied closely to the happy life. Next, Micah raises the question of what the Lord requires of us as his people, and then presents the threefold way as the key to how we should live: the path of justice, mercy and humility. Instead of the 613 laws of the Jewish people in Jesus’ day, Micah sums up God’s expectations for us in these three virtues. Over the years, my life has become more and more simplified by keeping Micah 6:8 fresh in my mind and life.

Practicing Justice

Justice has been defined in many different ways, and it can be a difficult concept to understand. For our purposes, however, I want to stay as simple, clear, and biblical as possible.

“To act justly” in the Hebrew is literally “to act justice.” It could also be translated “to do, to practice, to make, to carry out justice.” The idea is that we are to do far more than simply think about justice, but live a life of justice. The concept of justice is at the very heart of God’s character. The psalmist writes, “The Lord is known by his justice” (Ps. 9:16; 11:7). The word justice [mishpat] is used 425 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. It means that which is right, lawful or fair. It has a legal sense to it.

God’s view of injustice is seen several places in Micah (e.g., 2:1-2; 3:1-2, 8-11; 6:8-12). In Micah’s day, as in ours, it is highly offensive to God and terribly hurtful to people, to practice such injustices as fraud, bribery, dishonest scales, lying and deceit.

Years ago one of my students told me that he had to quit his job as a photographer for a certain mail-order catalog company. He said that he had to place the product on a table or display, and then photograph it in such a way that it would look appealing. There is nothing wrong with this, as such, but my student said that the product was really a piece of junk that he had to photograph in a tricky way, deceiving the prospective buyer. It’s true that the camera does not lie, but the photographer and catalog designer could deceive the reader by the position of the product, the angle of the light, and other tricks of the trade. This is injustice in God’s eyes, and I’m glad my student quit working with that company.

If you work for a company where your employer is asking you to cut corners or somehow cheat the customers, go to your boss and explain to him or her why you cannot, as a Christian, do the things he requires. It is the Lord who requires you “to act justly.” This, God says, is “what is good” (Micah 5:8).

Justice as Love

When you begin to study the hundreds of times “justice” is referred to in the Bible you will see why it is one of the three main requirements of the Lord, and why it is an essential part of the good life. Justice is really a form of love. In fact, justice and love are inseparable in the true follower of the Lord. We are told to love our neighbor as ourselves, and one way that we do this, according to both Old and New Testaments, is to practice justice. Jesus rebuked the religious teachers and spiritual leaders of his day by calling them hypocrites. He pointed out that they tithed their possessions faithfully, but, he said, “you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matthew 23:23). May God give us the strength of character to be just, as he is just.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Justice, Mercy and Humility: God's Prescription for Happiness

Top 12 Scripture Texts: Number 8A
Micah 6:8

Bob Rakestraw

The longer I live the more I am convinced that the happy life is the good life, and the good life is the happy life. Happiness and goodness are closely related, even though most people seem to pursue the former more than the latter. Perhaps because the word “goodness” has a moral connotation to it, and morality suggests restrictions, some tend to think that goodness may work against their pursuit of happiness and fun. But goodness, properly understood, is not a system of burdensome laws, but a quality of life that brings deep joy and hope—not only to oneself but to others as well.

The Path to Happiness

The path to happiness, stated in terms of everyday living, is to seek to be a benediction, or blessing, to every person with whom we come in touch. This path seems contrary to the popular idea of seeking one’s happiness by self-love, purchases, travel, exclusive relationships and accomplishments. There is nothing wrong, necessarily, with the items just mentioned, but when we give ourselves to the pursuit of happiness without desiring the will of God above all else, and without seeking to be a blessing to others, we will find not satisfaction but sorrow, not happiness but emptiness.

One way we can be certain that we are living as a benediction to others, is to focus on those scriptures that present a concise summary of God’s expectations, and then to concentrate on living in the way described there. One of the most clear and concise such Bible verses is Micah 6:8:

He has showed you, O [mortal], 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. (NIV)

I have selected this scripture text as one of my all-time favorite Bible passages because it struck me forcefully over forty years ago when I was searching for a way to summarize the way I should live. I had already discovered the Great Commandment in Matthew 22:36-40:

‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He [Jesus] said to him [the lawyer asking the question], ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (NRSV)

As stated above, this scripture portion, given in similar form in Mark 12:31-32, came to me before Micah 6:8. When I found the latter text I now had one summary statement from the New Testament and one from the Old, each speaking very plainly and similarly about how God desires people to live. Love for God with all our being is another way of saying what Micah says: “to walk humbly with your God.” And to love one’s neighbor as oneself is another way of summarizing Micah’s words: “to act justly and to love mercy.”

The Important Background

One of the most important lessons I learned in my early years as a Christian is to look closely at the context of the Bible verse or verses I am studying, It does not satisfy the requirements of careful Bible study to simply glance at our text and then begin speaking of justice, mercy, and humility. We need to look, at least briefly, at the overall purpose of the Bible book, the writer, the date, the historical circumstances, the intended recipients, and the connection of the scripture passage with the preceding and following verses. It is also important to note the similarity of the text with other texts on the same topic throughout the Bible, as we drew attention to the Great Commandment in Matthew 22:36-40. I do not intend to write about all of the above matters of Biblical interpretation just mentioned, but only those that have a bearing on Micah 6:8. But I always try to keep these background matters in mind as I write.

Reading through the book of Micah is an excellent way to see what the Lord is teaching his people—including us today. God is making accusations against his chosen people—both the northern kingdom, Israel, and the southern kingdom, Judah. The prophet Micah, from southern Judah, prophesied between 750 and 686 B.C., and, like his contemporary Isaiah, both threatens punishment and promises justice for God’s people. Punishment is coming to them because of their idolatry, injustice, rebellion, witchcraft and empty ritual. Yet throughout the book, there are predictions of hope and deliverance—some of them very tenderly expressed—as well as prophecies of gloom and judgment.

The Threefold Way

The three virtues that summarize the good life in Micah 6:8—justice, mercy, and humility—are all pointed out by the prophet because they are in direct opposition to three specific evils rampant throughout the land: injustice, unkindness and pride. One of the best ways to understand what God means by justice, mercy and humility is to read the book of Micah while noting the sins for which Israel, Judah and the surrounding nations are being judged. In addition, being serious about purging the contemporary equivalents of these sins from our lives, while keeping before us the positive language of Micah 6:8, will lead us to a life of fulfillment and deep satisfaction.

To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God are the three qualities of the godly person’s life that summarize both the life of Jesus and the expected life of his followers. Loving our neighbor as ourselves, and loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength, lead with increasing confidence and satisfaction to the truly happy life. Next time we will look more closely at justice, mercy and humility and try to give specific examples of these from everyday life.