"An Impossible Debt to Pay"

Relief & Development Sunday Oct.14, 2007 Micah 6:1-8

Mixed-motive Mercy

The Lord Jesus must have wanted us to be a forgiven and forgiving people, for right at the heart of the Lord's Prayer we find the concept of debt forgiveness and mercy. "Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors." (Mt 6:12) But unless we recognize how great is our own debt to God that has been forgiven, we may find it difficult to show mercy to others.

For some time now the debt of developing countries has been acknowledged to be an unsolvable problem apart from some debt cancellation. The interest is compounding faster than their ability to pay. For example, in the year 2000 the president of Nigeria commented on the hardship of their situation: "All that we had borrowed up to 1985 or 1986 was around $5 billion and we have paid about $16 billion yet we are still being told that we owe about $28 billion. That $28 billion came about because of the injustice in the foreign creditors' interest rates. If you ask me what is the worst thing in the world, I will say it is compound interest." The economic bind translates into loss of life for many people. Ross Buckley in an article in World Policy Journal observes, "According to UNICEF, over 500,000 children under the age of five died each year in Africa and Latin America in the late 1980s as a direct result of the debt crisis and its management under the International Monetary Fund's structural adjustment programs...The debt crisis has never been resolved for much of sub-Saharan Africa. Extrapolating from the UNICEF data, as many as 5,000,000 children and vulnerable adults may have lost their lives in this blighted continent as a result of the debt crunch." (http://www.globalissues.org/TradeRelated/Debt/Scale.asp)

On the Canadian Foodgrains Bank video about his trip to Ethiopia, Steve Bell mentioned the danger of charitable work being done in a patronizing manner. Sometimes foreign aid is 'tied' in a way that benefits donors more than recipients.

When opportunities such as today come to contribute to Relief & Development, do we give grudgingly or gladly and generously? That probably depends whether we recognize and acknowledge our own impossible indebtedness to God, and the hugeness of what He's done in Christ to save us. Our passage in Micah 6 depicts a courtroom scene in which God presses a legal complaint, presenting a claim which His people 'owe': seeing this, the prophet acknowledges the impossibility of anything we humans can offer to ever compensate for the wrong done, the debt we owe God Most High.

Israel's Incredible Inequity / Iniquity

(Definitions: 'inequity' = unfairness; 'iniquity' = unrighteousness, wickedness [toward other people and God].) The prophet ministered about 750-715 BC, before the Assyrians conquered and destroyed Samaria, the capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel in 721. Before that, conditions were relatively prosperous in the north and the southern kingdom, Judah, benefiting from the long stable reigns of Jeroboam II and Uzziah. But material wealth masked moral bankruptcy.

Idolatry was rampant. 1:7, "All her idols will be broken to pieces..." 5:13f God warns, "I will destroy your carved images and your sacred stones from among you; you will no longer bow down to the work of your hands. I will uproot from among you your Asherah poles and demolish your cities." Following the traditions of Omri and Ahab, infant sacrifice was practiced (6:7,16).

Micah calls out, "Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds!" People coveted and seized their neighbours' houses and fields, defrauding them of their inheritance (something that was supposed to be guaranteed to family lines under the covenant of Moses; 2:1f). Widows and children were evicted heartlessly (2:9).

Theft and stealing were prevalent. 2:8, "You strip off the rich robe from those who pass by without a care..."

It wasn't just the ordinary people who were the problem. Corruption reeked at the top. God rebukes the leaders and officials: 3:1f, "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..." Those in positions of power used strong-arm bullying: 7:3, "...the ruler demands gifts, the judge accepts bribes, the powerful dictate what they desire-- they all conspire together."

The countries trusted in their military might, in some cases making alliances with neighbouring heathen countries who would later betray them. 5:10, "I will destroy your horses from among you and demolish your chariots."

The merchant class was full of rip-off artists: 6:10 refers to a short 'ephah' measure as 'accursed'; 6:11, "Shall I acquit a man with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?" An easy way to siphon off a little extra profit.

People were dishonest. 6:12, "Her rich men are violent; her people are liars and their tongues speak deceitfully." How can you trust anyone when lying is prevalent?

Families were fractured, not a place of safety, because of disrespect toward parents and the elderly. 7:6, "For a son dishonors 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."

And the whole atmosphere was like a gang-land, full of bloodshed. 7:2, "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."

So, though business was booming and times looked good on the surface, God's verdict was that the godly had 'been swept from the land'; there wasn't a single upright person left. All the money and wealth flowing into the Promised Land couldn't offset the fact that, before God, spiritually they were bankrupt.

Would You Give the Shirt Off Your Back?

Are we very different today from the land of Israel back then? Churches are closing and amalgamating due to lack of attendance and support. In Canada the growing gap between rich and poor has been documented by StatsCan: a December 2006 CBC news article notes, "Rising home values are behind much of the widening gap between Canada's wealthier citizens and its poorest, Statistics Canada said...Those with a net worth that places them in the top 20 per cent saw their wealth grow by 19 per cent between 1999 and 2005, while those in the bottom 20 per cent gained no ground at all." How many commercials are 100% truthful? Parents exercise less and less influence upon their children. Families are much more fragmented than in previous decades due to divorce. Marriages become strained as materialistic goals pressure couples to view two incomes a necessary.

Saints have a reputation for living simply and being generous. St Francis of Assisi not only gave away his inheritance, he would even take his clothes off to give away to beggars. What about you - would you be so kind and generous as to give someone in need 'the shirt off your back'?

[ADIDAS SHIRT] Take my shirt, for example. It's a kind gift from some San Diego cousins whose son works in a company that embroiders clothing for a sports market. Nice, huh? Not only is it adidas brand name, it comes with ultraviolet protection and is 'climacool' moisture breathable. Even comes with a little booklet that in 7 languages explains the flag symbol as "symbolizing our commitment to reach the highest level of performance and innovation for golf apparel, footwear and accessories." (Really now, I needed a 7-page booklet to tell me that?!)

The tag reveals the manufacturer's suggested retail price is $65. The tag inside the collar shows the shirt was made in Vietnam. I wonder what kind of conditions the person who made this shirt worked under? Since the sweatshop campaigns in the 1990s, adidas and some of the other biggest clothing companies (to their credit) have instituted inspectors who make surprise visits to ensure minimum standards are met. Still, the website of the Clean Clothes Campaign lists half a dozen countries in which there are current concerns involving adidas - Dominican Republic, El Salvador, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, and others.(http://www.cleanclothes.org/companies/adidas.htm)

Out of curiosity, I checked the minimum wage for Vietnam and it's the equivalent of $27.34 per month. How long would it take a labourer to earn enough to buy this $65 shirt? Over 2 1/3 months, or about 72 days. Our Ontario minimum wage since February has been $8/hour (in 4 hours that's more than the Vietnamese worker earns in a month). How much would this shirt be worth if a Canadian put in the same number of hours - 2 1/3 months - at OUR minimum wage? 72 days less weekends makes 52 workdays, 8 hrs/day, $8/hr - that makes this shirt worth $3,328. NICE SHIRT!

If I had considered buying this shirt - would I really want to participate a system that supports such contrast between haves and have-nots? Would it really break us to pay, say, double to the worker who made this? It's such a small portion of the marked-up value, we'd probably hardly notice it.

How many of you had a cup of coffee this morning? Interesting that Steve Bell mentioned Ethiopia is the geographic origin of coffee. FairTradeToronto.com asks, "When you spend $5 for your pound of coffee at your supermarket, do you realize that the coffee farmer receives less than 50 cents for the beans? When you spend $3.60 for a latte or cappuccino at your favorite cafe, do you realize that less than one cent of that goes to the coffee farmer?" So, besides charity, justice in trading agreements and looking for ways to buy products that are made ethically would help fight the tyranny of sweatshops and the bottomless debt trap in which many developing countries find themselves.

God's Immense Grace Offsets Our Massive Debt

As we saw before, Micah 6 opens with a courtroom scene: God has an accusation, a case to plead against His faithless covenant people. 6:2, "For the Lord has a case against His people; He is lodging a charge against Israel." He's about to show them how large is the debt they owe.

V3, "My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you?" In other words, how have I wronged you - what do I.O.U.? What shortfall on my part could possibly justify you treating me the way you do?

Vv4-5 outline God's great saving acts to the nation in the past. God brought them out of Egypt, redeemed or bought them back from the land of slavery. He provided godly leaders - Moses, Aaron, Miriam. When the king of Moab tried to get Balaam to curse them so he might defeat them, God foiled the plot, so Balaam blessed them instead. God reminds them He brought them miraculously across the Jordan River at full flood by stopping up the flow of water (probably by a landslide timed just right). They're told to think back on these events "so that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord." He's shown Himself to be a good and delivering God, true to His word, keeping His promises. He's been blameless in the relationship, going beyond what's required, show mercy on the least.

What would be the parallel for us Christians? We too have been redeemed from slavery - to sin. God has demonstrated He is righteous and just by both dealing with sin - attributing it and punishing innocent Jesus at the cross - yet mercifully forgiving us, the sinners. Romans 3:25f, "God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice [or, righteousness], because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished-- he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just [or, righteous] and the one who justifies [puts right with Himself] those who have faith in Jesus." How great a debt we owe - one that would have been impossible for us to pay.

Respond with Humble Mercy

Verses 6&7 ponder the impossibility of us paying God back for paying off our debt. "With what shall I come before the Lord...?" Any material thing we offered would be totally inappropriate - our offerings are piddly, nothing as compared to God's demonstrated mercy. Burnt offerings, yearling calves, thousands of rams, rivers of oil - it would be as nothing. Less appropriate still to even consider child sacrifice as in heathen worship - "Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my BODY for the sin of my SOUL?" It just doesn't match! There is nothing material we mortals could bring that would 'pay back' what the Most High God has done for us! That's all outward, detached; that's not what God wants. Such 'offerings' are all God's to start with anyway; Ps 50:9, "I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills." Like taking 'coals to Newcastle' or 'oil to Alberta'.

Do you get the impossibility of ever paying back what we owe to God? He has a case we could never 'square up'. He can't be 'bought off'. We're always, ever in His debt.

What is it, then, that God wants? What does He require, if He's up against us in court with such a boiler-plate case? V8, "What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." Echoes another prophet, Hosea 6:6: "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings." God's shown mercy to us: that's what He wants back.

"Act justly": do 'mishpat', produce right or fitting judgment, make for what's fair. Micah's contemporary, Isaiah, prophesied that God said in 58(6), "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?" That's doing justice.

"Love mercy": long for 'checed', kindness, goodness. Get a charge out of paying the other person's debt. Absorb the pain as Jesus took your blows. Paul directed us, "Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." (Eph 4:32)

"Walk humbly with your God": lowly, modestly - not trampling His courts proudly as if you deserve His presence. Maybe you don't need the latest in golf shirts, to draw attention. You don't need all the latest and greatest, or to be flashy in human eyes - it's God's opinion that counts. Steve Bell said, "Live simply that others may simply live." The apostle Peter counselled, "all of you, live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble." (1Pe 3:8) Adjust to each other's need; have a submissive attitude. When we clothe ourselves with humility toward one another, God gives grace to the humble - while opposing the proud. (1Pet 5:5)

There is a debt we owe that we could never pay. Wonderfully, graciously, Jesus paid that for us. His Spirit moves us to release that mercy and kindness into the lives of our neighbour - and renew our companionship with the Lord. Let's pray.