Israel is a mess, says God via Micah. One has to search the opening chapters to find the cause of his exasperation. In 3:8-12, he mentions rulers who hate justice, pervert fairness and build their realms with bloodshed, priests who teach for a price and seers who prophesy for pay. Unjust government, violent grabs for power, sold-out clergy — these conditions give rise to his critique of Israel’s counterfeit religion.
“Where have I failed you?” God asks through the prophet. God has a bone to pick with Israel. God had worked on their behalf in the historical process. God’s historic acts have led to her place of blessing. Israel was God’s people. They had the Torah and were called to a relationship with God.
But Micah didn’t see the evidence of true religion. They lived immorally and thought sacrifices and rituals — empty gestures without lives that reflect God’s character — would gain God’s favor.
When studying the prophets, it’s easy to become cynical critics of contemporary society. Evil abounds; negativity is seductive. It’s more difficult to get to the heart of how our religion may contribute to immorality in society.
That’s where Micah takes us. He zeroes in on empty ritual, “the sacrifice of praise” that substitutes for what God requires.
Many religious currents swirl about us. In the 2007 movie Religulous, Bill Maher sought to show “that religion is the most dangerous threat facing mankind and that ‘religion must die for mankind to live’ ” (as described in a Biola University report).
It’s a fool’s game. There’s nothing much easier that critiquing religions by their weakest, false human elements. The hard task is to prescribe and live what is genuine.
So what does God require? Micah defines that in the classic, oft-cited: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” God seeks moral reform and life in fellowship with God, not religious ritual.
We as Mennonites are not immune from the temptation to substitute ritual and piety, even offering self-sacrifice in the place of genuine religion. Loving kindness is a part of genuine religion. But without walking humbly with God it becomes a substitute for the real thing.
The second passage, which concludes the prophecy, presents Micah seeing a time when, after calamity in the world, God’s people will be restored to a place of dominance and blessing. Micah focuses on God’s dynamics that result in this eschatological possibility: A God who forgives all sin, who does not “retain his anger forever because he delights in showing clemency,” who “will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” God overcomes human frailty and faultiness by showing clemency.
In Micah’s prophecy, that future has a Zionistic frame. But Jesus, in his conversation with the woman at the well in Samaria, opened up the frame to include all nations: “Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” but wherever “true worshipers worship the Father in spirit and truth.” The possibility of true religion is not linked to geography but to faithfulness.
True religion has two elements, according to Micah: morality and fellowship with God. God’s call and grace come in the midst of unfaithfulness. In spite of their waywardness, through Micah God offered Israel a way to blessing. Through Jesus, God offers the same: Sermon on the Mount living and abiding in the Vine. God’s vision for God’s people will not come without both — genuine morality and intimacy with God.
John M. Miller, of Leola, Pa., served with his wife, Doris, as a missionary in Mexico and taught missions and social ethics in seminaries. He is a member of Stumptown Mennonite Church.