Divine Wisdom

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Micah 6:1-8; 1 Cor. 1:18-31

Many Old Testament scholars read this prophetic utterance from Micah and imagine a courtroom scene. Described as a “covenant law suit,” such examples from prophetic literature generally include a summons, a call to witnesses or judges, a list of the benefits that the plaintiff has conferred upon the defendant, and complaints against the defendant.[1] That precise outline is laid before us here. Serving as the narrator (or, if you will, the bailiff), Micah summons all to be present and pay attention, saying, “Hear what the Lord is saying! Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains; let the hills hear your voice!” Micah then turns to address the mountains themselves: “Hear, you mountains, the lawsuit of the Lord! Hear, eternal foundations of the earth! The Lord has a lawsuit against his people; with Israel he will argue.” The mountains and the “foundations of the earth” shall serve as judge and jury in the case.

The next party to speak is the Lord, who begins in verse three with his complaint, “My people, what did I ever do to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!” That doesn’t sound like a very… methodical complaint, does it? “What did I ever do to you?” doesn’t sound like legaleze, does it? Professor Terrence Fretheim points this out as a reason to doubt that this is intended to be a courtroom drama at all. “This emotion-laden divine language is certainly not typical courtroom or accusatory rhetoric (6:3)!” he writes. And so he argues that this is not a covenant lawsuit. But I think that if we view this text through the lens of the New Testament, the possibility emerges that dismissing this text as “not a covenantal lawsuit” because God makes an emotional argument, rather than a legal one, misses the precise prophetic point.

God gives a short list of the “benefits” that Israel, the defendant, has received from God, the plaintiff; namely, “I brought you up from the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery. I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.” He also reminds them that despite King Balak of Moab’s plans to curse the people, God turned that curse into a blessing from the lips of Balaam, son of Beor and frustrated owner of a most charming talking donkey. “Remember all that?” he asks.

The camera turns, narratively speaking, to the people of Israel, seeking their response. “We make our sacrifices, so what more do you want from us? More sacrifices? More burnt offerings? Thousands of rams, instead of a few a day? Ten thousand rivers of oil, instead of what you’ve previously prescribed? Should we lay out our firstborn children? When will you be satisfied?”

Finally, divine wisdom is revealed in the final verse—the most famous verse of the passage—spoken by the prophet: “God has already told you what is good and what he wants from you: do justice; embrace loving kindness; walk humbly with God.” It is divine wisdom that subverts all expectation. The people have been hauled into court; God is the plaintiff; some penalty must surely be forthcoming. But God demands no penalty. God extracts no retribution. Instead, God says, “I want you to love each other… I want you to love me.”

It’s a safe bet that the people were caught off guard by this prophetic utterance. They had been working under the wrong assumptions: assumptions about the efficacy of their cultic activities—assumptions that were subverted and overturned by God’s stated “requirement.” Actually, this very passage of scripture can serve as an example of what I mean. The meaning of the phrase, “what does the Lord require of you?” might lead people to make certain assumptions. One might assume that seeking justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God are “required” of us in order to “satisfy” God in the same way that all those sacrifices had been given; that is, God’s “requirements” are often treated like cultic activities, motions to go through, lip service to pay. This assumptive, transactional theology turns the Law into a checklist of dos and don’ts to be followed out of fear of divine wrath upon any who fail. But according to the Rev. James C. Howell, author of What Does the Lord Require?: Doing Justice, Loving Kindness, and Walking Humbly, the Hebrew word for require, “darash,” contains undertones of affection. It’s not that the Lord insists upon justice, love, and humility (in the sense that our salvation depends on it); it’s that he seeks them, he yearns for them, he needs them of us in order for our relationships to be as healthy and intimate as God has designed.

God’s will is that his people seek justice, which means building communities of caring. Justice is what love looks like at the societal level. Throughout the Law, God shows us how to seek justice through laws that prohibit the exploitation of the poor by lending at interest (Ex. 22:25; Lev. 25:36); jubilee laws that return familial property to their original owners after certain periods of time (Lev. 25); laws that demand care for widows and orphans (Ex. 22:22; Deut. 14:28-29); laws that protect and provide for the poor and hungry (Deut. 15:7; Deut. 26:12); and more than a dozen laws protecting the rights and dignity of migrants, refugees, and other aliens.

But why? Why does God care so much about poor people? About widows and orphans and other underprivileged folk? Why are there thirteen different utterances, for instance, that God’s people care for the foreign neighbors living among them? Because the fundamental virtue that underlies every ethic and practice in the Kingdom of God is love. We seek justice because that is how we exhibit, at a societal level, the same loving kindness that God has shown to us. There is nothing more “alien” to God’s holiness, there is nothing more different from God than sinful humanity. Nonetheless, God loves us, God has drawn near to us, God has carried the flesh of our humanity into his holy and eternal presence in the ascension of Jesus Christ; and “we love because God first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God makes this clear in God’s complaint against Israel: “I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam” (Mic. 6:4). God said it repeatedly in the book of Exodus: “You shall not oppress an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” The prophets were constantly reminding Israel of its story, implying, “Before you treat others badly, remember how you were treated by your oppressors.”

Micah speaks out because the people seem to have forgotten their story and, therefore, their saving God. When we forget God’s saving acts in our lives, we become unable to empathize with others. They become charity cases at best, and scapegoats at worst. But we’re not different from them; only our circumstances are different. God doesn’t love them less; we love them less, and we do so at our own peril and to our own condemnation.

And all the while, we show up on Sunday mornings and call ourselves disciples of the very Lord who said, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me… Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me” (Matt. 25:41-45).

Micah’s message was (and is) an indictment of religious lip service; cheap grace; worship without work. It flies in the face of human wisdom, by which religious rituals replace righteous relationships. It alludes to the difference between charity, which only treats the symptoms of our social ills, and justice, which would heal our social disease.

Then we turn to Paul in his letter to the Corinthians, and he tells us that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of what we preach” (1 Cor. 1:21). See, the Jews, being a people with a long memory for how God had saved them through deeds of mighty power, demanded signs. And the Greek Gentiles of Paul’s day—the folks with whom he spent a great deal of time—were philosophers who constantly sought wisdom, that is, human wisdom about God (or “the gods”) and humanity’s place in the universe. Meanwhile, Paul and Apollos and Peter and the others… they were preaching the crucified Christ. A dead Messiah was a stumbling block for most Jews, and sounded just plain stupid to most Greeks, but for some—those whom the Holy Spirit enabled to grasp it—Christ’s cross was all the sign or the wisdom necessary to understand God. God is love. In Christ, God took his own judgment upon himself. Jesus was our righteous judge, judged in our place.

Dr. Mark Achtemeier says of this passage,

“This unlikely means of salvation, in which the Son of God suffers and dies an ignominious death for the redemption of humankind, is not something that conventional spiritual wisdom or philosophical reflection could have anticipated. As a result, says Paul, the religious ‘experts’ who were staking their claims on human wisdom have completely missed the boat…

“[Their] failure to recognize God’s salvation of the world in Jesus is the product of prior expectations about what God’s work must look like. Both Jewish and Greek unbelievers suffer a form of blindness caused by human religious preconceptions about what God must be like. As a result of their reliance on this accumulated stock of religious ‘wisdom,’ both groups fail to recognize what God actually is like.”[2]

When we fail to take seriously what scripture tells us about what God is like, our ignorance creates space for the idolatrous assumption that God wants what we want; that God hates who we hate; that God blesses “us” and curses “them.” We forget that we were once aliens in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord brought us up out of the house of slavery. We forget that Jesus taught that “God makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45), apparently because God loves both the evil and the good, both the righteous and the unrighteous.

If that sounds ridiculous, if that sounds like foolishness to you, the apostle Paul would draw your attention the cross of Christ. “And then look at you,” he says. “Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards, not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class. But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. So no human being can brag in God’s presence. It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means that he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us” (1 Cor. 26:30, CEB).

That, my brothers and sisters, is Paul’s definition of walking humbly with our God. We deserve condemnation, but God has loved us to his own death. He has told us what is good. God yearns for us to seek justice, to embrace God’s loving-kindness such that we are able to love our neighbors in the same way, and to remember our place and walk humbly with God. God’s strength is not worldly strength. God’s justice does not correspond to human justice. And God’s divine wisdom, however foolish it may seem, is our salvation.

 

[1] W. Sibley Towner, “Micah 6:1-8, Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox: 2010), 291.

[2] P. Mark Achtemeier, “1 Cor. 1:18-31; Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox: 2010), 303-4.

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