"Micah's Challenge to Be Just & Kind"

Oct.26, 2005 Micah 6:1-8

Challenged but Hopeful

[Canadian Foodgrains Bank slideshow "Make Hunger History"]

Wow - a presentation like that leaves you challenged, doesn't it? Some might say, "So what's new?" Thirty years ago, when I was a student in crop science & international agriculture at the University of Guelph, professors were bemoaning the Club of Rome's dire predictions of an impending global population explosion and "Limits to Growth". Even with the Green Revolution it was doubted the world would be able to sustain itself. Hunger has been around a long time. But there's a different tone in development journals this year: there's a note of hope, that maybe it's really possible to "Make Poverty History" or "Make Hunger History".

Many centuries back, about 730 BC, the prophet Micah had a challenge for the nations of Israel and Judah in his own day, that also related to the poor. Change was needed then, and quickly. Micah, under the Lord's inspiration, insisted his countrymen had both the guidance and resources they needed to make the necessary adjustments. There was just one problem: sin. They had turned their backs on God, in order to follow foolish idolatries and take advantage of the 'little people' in society. They needed to be reminded life was about pleasing God, not themselves.

Corruption All Over

Micah would have found the situation of the time particularly disturbing because the divided kingdom had enjoyed much progress militarily and economically, but moral decay was sweeping away true security. Previous kings had had successful campaigns and extended Jewish control to an extent not seen since the time of Solomon. Yet at the very moment business was booming, God's prophet warned there was a fatal flaw in it all. Micah declared the nation's "wound is incurable" (1:9). Moral gangrene had set in and the Northern Kingdom would soon be amputated.

Micah was from a rural village 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem, and was aware of the pressure the rural poor felt because of wealthy landowners and the new merchant class. To some degree, the cities, and in particular the capitals, were the primary targets of his warnings. The buck stopped there. He said (1:5b), "What is Jacob's transgression? Is it not Samaria [the northern capital]? What is Judah's high place? Is it not Jerusalem?"

Several classes of corrupt folk were making the cities hum. Micah noted the political leaders: the rulers and judges. "Listen, you leaders of Jacob, you rulers of the house of Israel. Should you not know justice, you who hate good and love evil; who tear the skin from my people and the flesh from their bones...?" (3:1f) And, "the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes..." (7:3) There was scum at the top of the bucket.

The military had been successful at gaining control of the trade routes that cut through the region, which formed sort of a strategic bottleneck or command post smack in the narrow neck-band of the fertile crescent. Roads were funnelled through Israel by the Mediterranean Sea on one side, and the desert on the other. Whoever controlled Israel's roads controlled lucrative trade routes. Being successful and having deadly force could prove too tempting for army personnel who were supposed to man the checkpoints without profit. Micah said, "Lately my people have risen up like an enemy. You strip off the rich robe from those who pass by without a care, like men returning from battle." (2:8) The nations had adapted technology from neighbouring nations, trusting in their cavalry and weaponry of the day, and their ability to construct imposing fortresses. But the Lord warned, "...I will destroy your horses from among you and demolish your chariots.I will destroy the cities of your land and tear down all your strongholds." (5:10_11)

Being rural, perhaps it was hardest for Micah to see wealthy landowners force people off their acreage unfairly, but it was going on as a common occurrence. "Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning's light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it.They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them.They defraud a man of his home, a fellowman of his inheritance...You drive the women of my people from their pleasant homes.You take away my blessing from their children forever." (2:1f,9) Land in Israel was supposed to be permanently deeded to families, from Joshua on down; but people were being made landless. Micah moans, "the powerful dictate what they desire..." (7:3) In the Lord's realm, just because you have the power doesn't make it right for you to exploit just as you please; but the wealthy ignored that. For an example, see how King Ahab cold-bloodedly accused and murdered Naboth in 1Kings 21 just to get his vineyard. In Ahab's wife's mind, that's just how the wealthy operated back then.

Amongst the new merchant class, Micah noted despicable cheating and shortchanging in commercial dealings. "Am I still to forget, O wicked house, your ill_gotten treasures and the short ephah [dry measure about half a bushel], which is accursed? Shall I acquit a man with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?" (6:10f) The traders were terribly tricky.

Then there were the prophets out for profit. Yes, corruption extended to the religious leaders as well. They prophesied what the people wanted to hear, not what they needed to hear. "If a liar and deceiver comes and says, 'I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,' he would be just the prophet for this people!...As for the prophets who lead my people astray, if one feeds them, they proclaim 'peace'; if he does not, they prepare to wage war against him...Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. Yet they lean upon the LORD and say, "Is not the LORD among us? No disaster will come upon us."" (2:11; 3:5,11) Even worse, since the times of kings Omri and Ahab, the nation had adopted the pagan rituals of surrounding nations, including witchcraft. God declares, "I will destroy your witchcraft and you will no longer cast spells." (Mic 5:12)

When the leadership is rotten, the rest of the organization will be affected, too. Although Micah held the leaders chiefly responsible, he didn't stop there; he pointed out the widespread lawlessness and rebellion throughout the whole population. There was a widespread breakdown in trust and authority. He ventured so far as to say, "The godly have been swept from the land; not one upright man remains. All men lie in wait to shed blood; each hunts his brother with a net." (7:2) Quite a switch from being your brother's 'keeper' - "I'll keep'im all right, right in this trap!" Micah describes the social breakdown and rebellion in words that became proverbial. "Do not trust a neighbour; put no confidence in a friend...For a son dishonours his father, a daughter rises up against her mother, a daughter_in_law against her mother_in_law-- a man's enemies are the members of his own household." (7:5f) Rebelliousness was so interwoven into the fabric of public thinking that society's basic authority structure and order (including the family) were becoming unravelled.

(Y'know) When you think about it, there's a strong danger of moral insolvency in Canadian society today. How do our classes match up compared to those of Micah's day? What about our rulers and politicians? The Gomery inquiry should shed some interesting light on the sponsorship scandal. Bill Clinton keeps popping up in the media and magazine covers as sort of a cult hero. What about our businesses, our merchant class? We've heard news of accounting scandals, insider trading, book-cooking the tasteful Martha Stewart way. Trade relations have their own problems, such as the softwood lumber issue, trading partners ignoring NAFTA rulings; borders can be slammed closed very quickly over one incident of BSE, not to be reopened for a very long time.

There's a lot of religious experimentation going on - re-introducing and even idolizing what was previously strictly pagan. Churches are struggling: witness the closing of half the Catholic churches in our whole area. You should see how decorated the office area of the hospital gets over Halloween; not to mention the local 'Witches' Walk' becoming increasingly accepted and shamelessly promoted. Makes attending a seance or trying out a ouija board a too-easy next step into the occult.

And the past 20 years have seen an alarming increase in the degree of family breakdown. As a small example, hospital administrative staff are finding it increasingly time-consuming under the new privacy rules to have to check, when a parent asks to see their child's records, whether that parent does in fact have custody rights to that information.

The general disregard for authority of Micah's time is reflected in an article from this past week's London Free Press. The Police Chief is quoted as being 'shocked' by a dramatic increase in assaults on his officers. 71 charges were laid in the first nine months of 2005, a rise of 115% over last year. Assaults rance from spitting on to striking an officer. The chief added that the numbers reflect what's happening in society. We hear you, Micah.

Sam(aria) I Am

Coming from the rugged hill country of Judah, Micah would have noticed how lush and rich were the plains of Israel, the northern neighbour. If we move to an international outlook, we may see more disparities that would rank us compared to other countries less than favourably in the prophetic view. Development experts note that Industrialized countries are not living up to their promises of reformed economics policies, after entrapping (if not bilking) poorer countries for decades. For example, between 1970 and 2002, the poorest African countries received $294 billion in loans, paid back $298 billion (4 billion more) in interest and principal, but still owed more than $200 billion. Who profited there? Could that be construed as taking advantage of someone's predicament?

The "Make Poverty History" platform notes, "Currently, international trade is neither free nor fair. Trade rules allow rich countries to pay large subsidies to a small number of companies to export food. These policies encourage over-production, destroy the livelihoods of millions of poor farmers in developing countries, and hurt the environment."

When it comes to providing aid, Canada is falling short. Dr Jeffrey Sachs is a widely-recognized economist at Columbia University, and Director of the Earth Institute and of the Millennium Project. He writes, "Since the Monterrey Consensus in 2002 [at which donor countries re-affirmed their pledge to reach 0.7% of their income in official development assistance], the great drama has been whether the rich world would finally meet the 0.7% target, to enable the poorest countries to break out of the poverty trap...Until recently, only 6 countries had declared a timetable to reach 0.7% of GNP by the year 2015: Belgium, Finland, France, Ireland, Spain, and the United Kingdom. Adding these 6 to the 5 countries (Denmark, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden) that have a long-standing success in achieving 0.7% brought the total of committed countries to 11 - exactly half of the 22 donor countries that are members of the rich world's 'donor club' known as the Development Assistance Committee." In April, Germany announced a timetable by which it will increase its assistance to 0.7% by 2014; that brings the total to 12. Did you notice our country's omission from the list? What's going on here - we're one of the most desirable places to live on the planet! Little Luxembourg can fork out the amount pledged, but not Canada? Really! Yet back in 2000 along with the other 190 countries of the United Nations, we too adopted the Millennium Development Goals. If we don't keep our promises, what's that say about our trustworthiness? Are we being like Samaria? Micah's terse words stab: "Her rich men are violent; her people are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully." (6:12)

What God Requires

The most renowned passage in Micah's short book, chapter 6, begins as in a courtroom setting, with a lawsuit being declared. God calls the mountains as witnesses; they saw how He brought the Hebrews up from Egypt. He redeemed them from the land of slavery (bought them back when they were penniless). He provided leaders for them; up-ended enemy plots, making Balak's intention to curse them backfire; the Lord provided all their physical needs while their thousands were on their long journey through the wilderness. And how do they treat Him in return? It's as if He asks, "What gives?" "My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you?" Something's not right. Their response is out of whack compared to all He's done for them.

Verses 6-7 observe that it would be a wrong response to just make offerings as the pagan idol-worship demanded, or mechanically present offerings from their flocks and herds. The Lord doesn't need thousands of rams, or burnt offerings of yearling calves. "Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" It's not a strange question, considering Abraham was tested that way, and other nations practiced infant sacrifice; for instance the king of Moab, and even two Jewish kings, Ahaz and Manasseh, burnt their own sons as sacrifices, though this was clearly forbidden in the law of Moses (2Kings 3:27; 16:3; 21:6; 2Chron 28:3; Lev 18:21). But that's still offering something out there, while the problem is really in here (inside), a matter of the heart and soul and will.

In a classic verse, God's prophet declares: "He has showed you, O man, 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." (6:8)

We've been shown what is good - from Cain on down, we know we're to be our brother's keeper. When we do violence to that, it's as when God said to Cain, "Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground!" (Gen 4:9f) Moses taught, "Love your neighbour as yourself" - which Jesus reiterates with the Greatest Commandment (Lev 19:18; Mt 22:39). Put yourself in their shoes. Try to see things from another's eyes.

Sometime for a really challenging read, look at Deuteronomy 24:10(-22). Age-old counsel from before the entry to Palestine. Cut the poor some slack. Respect the rights of the poor, don't barge into their house to grab some security; let them bring it out to you. We all have essential needs that shouldn't be taken away: if a poor person gives their cloak as collateral, return it before nightfall. Don't take a widow's cloak as a pledge. Pay wages owed, don't take advantage of someone (for instance sweat shops, or multinationals relocating to avoid safety regulations). Don't beat your olive trees a second time, or go back to collect grapes or a sheaf of grain left behind: leave it for the poor. (That's got to be at least 0.7%!) Scripture says, "Leave it for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, SO THAT the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands." (Deut 24:19) Kind of like watching out for mistreated Abel. We deprive ourselves of blessing when we deprive the poor of basic respect and needs.

Being a Blessing

Thirty years ago, there was a lot of gloom and doom. We're still here. So are the poor. But now development officials are saying there's a significant window of opportunity. Bread for the World, a Washington-based Christian hunger organization, argues that for the first time in history, the world has the resources, knowledge and structures to end hunger, and to do it relatively quickly. Economist Jeffrey Sachs argues persuasively that ending extreme poverty and hunger is both possible and affordable. He says, "This year marks a pivotal moment in international efforts to fight extreme poverty...The lives of hundreds of millions of people could be dramatically improved and millions could be saved every year, but only if the world takes bold steps in 2005...Sound, proven, cost-effective interventions indeed exist that can ameliorate, and often eliminate, the underlying causes of extreme poverty.Some real breakthroughs are possible, if these proven technologies can be implemented at scale in the poorest parts of the world." Sounds actually hopeful!

So what's the price tag? The economist figures this will cost $135 billion annually by the year 2015. That sounds a lot, but 0.7% of the GNP would be $220 billion - over half again as much as required. Currently we're only spending $80 billion on aid, or 0.25%. That sounds like merely gleaned grapes, easily done without.

It's not a matter of hardship for us in the industrialized countries, just a matter of developing the political will. The Foodgrains Bank slide show said we spend more on PET FOOD each year than is required to solve world hunger. What's that say about our priorities?

Without mentioning trade benefits, Sachs points out that fighting poverty will have positive side effects for everyone. He notes, "By choosing to help the poorest of the poor, Germany has chosen to help ensure global stability as well, since extreme poverty is one of the major risk factors in causing political upheavals and violence." Easier to toss in a sack than get stuck in Iraq!

What's required, then? What sacrifice will please the Lord? What should be our action steps? First, pray, and spend time with God. "Walk humbly with your God." Human strategies fail without divine guidance. Maybe we in the racing, money- and sex-crazed West will discover the truly satisfying things in life aren't physical or material, but spiritual and relational.

Second, "Act justly." The Micah Challenge and Make Poverty History campaign both have as their platform three simple things: more and better aid, trade justice, and debt relief. Our politicians need to hear from Canadians, so there will be a consensus to increase aid spending by 12% in the next budget. The Micah Challenge should have some clout, being a project of more than 270 Christian relief organizations, and an evangelical network of about 3 million local churches in 111 countries. As Micah did, let's speak up!

And, we need to "love mercy", practise loving-kindness. Encourage others to discover the joy of generosity; fight the me-ism that's rampant in our culture, isolating us from one another.

[World Partners pamphlet] A starting place for mercy could be this Relief & Development brochure. Pages 4-5 tell how your gift makes a difference through Foodgrains Bank food-for-work programs in Southern Sudan and Liberia. Turn the page and you'll see how we're building homes for under $5,000 in El Salvador and Sri Lanka, or providing care homes for AIDS orphans in South Africa. Next, World Relief Canada sparks true long-term development through micro-financing in Bangladesh and Mozambique; this builds strongly on the credit union concept. And the last page features Children's Homes International in Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, and Sri Lanka: both individual child share support from $15-50/month as well as practical needs like a fence or dental care. Many opportunities to show mercy and kindness around the globe. We may not go there in person, but your financial gift can travel easily and touch these lives with God's grace.

I'll close adapting from World Partners Canada Associate Director Paul Brander's comments on p.3: "Our projects aim to help improve the lives of disadvantaged people and share the love of Jesus Christ with them. Together we can strive to continue to reduce the numbers of poor and hungry people in our world and to make an impact for God!...Thank you for your partnership in this Kingdom work and may the Lord bless you as you bless others."

That's what pleases the Lord - walking humbly with Him, acting justly and sharing His mercy, as He has already blessed us. Let's pray.