The book of Micah repeats the cycle of judgement followed by deliverance and redemption three times. Here, the lection has guided us to a passage of judgment. Judgement passages, of course, can be a little tricky to preach. In the North American context, the church is (rightly) critiqued from both the outside and the inside for being too judgmental. As a culture, we don’t like to judge, and we like it even less when others judge us. Judgement seems like bad news. We prefer to skip right over to deliverance and redemption.
But judgement is not always bad news. For those on the underside of society, judgment can be long-awaited, affirming, and even liberating. For those who are already condemned by a harsh and cruel world, judgement from the Lord is, itself, redemptive. I may still be condemned, but so are those who stand in accusation against me.
Of course, if judgment from the Lord is only proclaimed against the lowly, then it doesn’t help much of anything. Too often, people in positions of leadership are tempted to shield themselves from judgement by redirecting the judgement of the Lord toward those who have already been condemned by the world (not unlike the prophets, priests, and chiefs in this passage). Prophetic words of judgment that should call the wealthy and powerful of this world to repentance can easily become yet another means by which those wealthy and powerful folks can condemn and hold down the poor. When someone is under the mistaken impression that they possess the word of the Lord, they can easily use that “word” for their own benefit.
This seems to be part of what has happened here in Micah’s context. The prophets of the Lord have cried “peace” when they have had something to eat, but declared war against those who put nothing into their mouths. The rulers of the house of Jacob have abhorred justice, perverted equity, built Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong. “
[Jerusalem’s] rulers give judgement for a bribe,
its priests teach for a price,
its prophets give oracles for money;
yet they lean upon the Lord and say,
“Surely the Lord is with us!
No harm shall come upon us.” (11)
Those who were meant to judge, teach, and prophecy have sought the counsel of money, not the Lord, as they have undertaken those high callings. And they have done so believing that the Lord was with them. The Lord had made them prophets, priests, and rulers, right? So the Lord must be with them!
Of course, this isn’t true. As the prophets have neglected to seek the Lord in their prophesying, the Lord promises to withdraw from them altogether. “They shall cover their lips, for there is no answer from God (7b)”. They will be disgraced because their words, not coming from the Lord, will fall flat.
Similarly, the rulers of the house of Jacob will face judgment. Because of their injustice, “Zion will be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooden height (12)”. The center of power in Israel is going to be so thoroughly destroyed that it will be like a plowed field. Flattened, void even of debris, and turned over. Completely destroyed, but ready for seeds to be sown.
The designers of the lectionary have paired this passage with Matthew 23 intentionally, and there is indeed a strong thematic connection. The scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day have rekindled the arrogance of Micah’s prophets, priests, and rulers. They, too, place heavy burdens on those who are outside of the primary circles of power while dodging judgment themselves. While lectionary reading stops at Matthew 23:12, the true parallel between Micah 3 and Matthew 23 lies in the rest of the chapter as Jesus pronounces a series of “Woes” upon the scribes and Pharisees and laments over Jerusalem.
There is no question that we have rekindled this same arrogance again in the contemporary church. There are easy targets to point these passages toward (it doesn’t take long to think of Christian leaders who have “sold out” for political or material gain). This week, though, I would challenge preachers (most of whom are unlikely to preach directly from this passage) to search yourselves and consider your own engagement with the Word of God. As you prepare sermons and lessons this week, are you seeking the Lord in your reading and teaching, or are you driven by something else?
Micah was not a big-time prophet from Jerusalem. He was from a small, rural town in Judah (If you can confidently point to Moresheth on a map, you are a step ahead of the archeologists). Maybe coming from outside of the usual circles of prophecy and power allowed him to see the corruption in ways that those on the inside could not. Maybe Micah’s lack of concern with “success” in Jerusalem allowed him to avoid these temptations. Whatever the reason, the Word of the Lord came to Micah, and Micah delivered it faithfully.
For small-time preachers like me, it’s not likely that lucrative book or TV deals will ride on our sermons, and not many will care about any political endorsements we might make. Money and power might not tempt us to bend the Word of the Lord for our own benefit quite so directly. But we might find ourselves pulled toward pleasing our congregants rather than speaking the honest word of God to them. We may be tempted to concern ourselves more with what will draw a bigger crowd than what will communicate God’s word to the people in front of us. Are you taking comfort in the thought that “Surely the Lord is with us! No harm shall come upon us.” Or are you inviting the Lord to fill you with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might? Are you willing to stand under judgment with your lowly congregants, or are you stuck pointing the judgment of God elsewhere (or omitting it entirely)?
May the Word of the Lord come upon you this week, and may you preach that Word faithfully!