Good morning, Friends!
Last week, I said we were going to do something different. Instead of a new Scripture every Sunday, I said we’re going to spend three weeks looking at just one verse.
I know everybody has their favorites. For some people, their favorite verse might be John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have everlasting life. . .”
Or your favorite verse might be from Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want; he makes me to lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside the still waters. . .”
Or it might be from the Sermon on the Mount – “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. . .”
One of my favorites is from the book of Revelation – “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you will eat with me. . .”
As I say, everyone has their own favorite verse, and those verses are like anchors for the soul for us.
The verse we’re studying now is one of these soul anchors. It’s from the prophet Micah in the Old Testament, and it asks us a question.
“What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”– Micah 6:8
Last week we looked what it means when God requires us to do justice.
I said that the word we read as “justice” in our Bibles has several different translations. It can also mean living in a right relationship. It can be doing the right thing. It can be following God’s law.
God wants justice. God wants things to be right. God wants the poor to be provided for. God wants people to speak up for the helpless. God wants society to be structured in a way that puts human needs first, and profit second.
There is no justice when people are forced into homelessness. There’s no justice when people have to sit at the back of the bus, or where children go hungry. There may be legal reasons, or economic reasons, but those aren’t God’s reasons. God calls us to a higher standard. God calls us as a society, and God calls us as individuals, to do justice, to do the right.
In the same way, the word we translate in our Bibles as “kindness” has a lot behind it, too. The word in Hebrew is chesed. Sometimes we also translate it as mercy, or forgiveness, or as steadfast love. I’d like us to look at all of those different meanings today.
“Kind” always seems like such a sentimental word. We’re kind to puppies and kittens, or we’re kind to little children. It’s not a big word. Having kindness as a major commandments makes God seem sort of trivial, doesn’t it?
The dictionary definition of “kind” is: “having feelings befitting our common nature; disposed to do good and confer happiness; benevolent; well-disposed; sympathetic; gracious.” (Webster’s New International Dictionary, 2nd edition)
That starts to reach what’s going on here. Justice has to do with needs and with right. Kindness has to do with our common condition, with lifting up and helping. Kindness has to do with helping in an unexpected or undeserved way. Kindness has to do with grace. It’s a gift. It isn’t something we earn, or deserve. It’s a free gift.
Over and over, in the Old Testament, God says: “Remember the strangers and exiles, because you were once strangers and exiles yourselves in the land of Egypt. . .”
That sense of the common human condition, that feeling that we have all been there ourselves, and we could so easily be there again – that’s what drives kindness. “It could have happened to us.”
Instead of kindness, our society seems to have a lot of blindness instead. Or amnesia. We forget about what we went through, or what our families endured – we forget about that. We look the other way. We pretend people aren’t our sisters and our brothers. We treat them like unwelcome strangers. Kindness means remembering who we all are, and acting accordingly.
Another meaning for the word chesed, I said a minute ago, is mercy. “What God requires of us, is that we do justice, and love mercy. . .” The two go hand in hand.
To do justice means that we, ourselves, do the right thing, to the best of our ability. To love mercy means that we choose the path that restores rather than punishes, the way that reconciles and heals.
In the gospels, Jesus talks a lot about mercy. Do you all remember the story of the servant, who owed a king a lot of money? It was a huge amount, equivalent to something like four or five billion dollars.
The king asked for the return of the loan, and the servant said, “Just be patient with me, and I’ll pay it all back!” So the king let him off. He wrote the debt right off the books.
On his way out, the servant met one of his fellow servants – notice that idea of a common condition again. We are all servants.
Servant #2 owes Servant #1 something like fifty dollars. Five billion versus fifty – that’s a ratio of a hundred million to one.
Servant #1 grabs Servant #2 by the throat and says, “Pay me my money!” Servant #2 says the same thing – “Just be patient with me, and I’ll pay you back!” But Servant #1 pays no attention, and throws his fellow servant into jail.
The king hears about it, and the king is furious. The king calls Servant #1 back in on the carpet.
“I showed mercy to you,” says the king. “I wrote off your debt. You didn’t need that fifty dollars. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant, too? Take this guy away,” the king says, “and hang him up by his thumbs till he pays it all back!” (see Matthew 18:23-35)
Over and over again, Jesus quoted the Old Testament prophet Hosea. He told hard hearted people, “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings. . .” (Matthew 9:13, quoting Hosea 6:6)
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. . .” (Matthew 5:7)
Are we really merciful? Is mercy something other people notice about us? Do we stand out in the world, because we do justice, and love mercy?
Those are not rhetorical questions. Those are questions we need to be wrestling with. Loving mercy, choosing mercy over all of the other options, is what it’s all about, from God’s viewpoint. Mercy is the heart of spirituality, and of right living.
I don’t usually bring Shakespeare into my sermons, but this is a good one. It’s Portia’s speech, from Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice. This is what she says:
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore. . .
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
Sometimes Shakespeare hits the nail right on the head.
Another way to translate chesed is “steadfast love”, which the Bible says is one of God’s most outstanding attributes. It’s mentioned over 120 times in the Psalms.
“The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting. . .” (Psalm 103:17)
“All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness. . .” (Psalm 25:10)
“Sing to the Lord a new song, play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.” (You see, the Lord really likes country music!) “For the word of the LORD is upright; and all his work is done in faithfulness. He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD.” (Psalm 33:3-5)
Steadfast love, or kindness, or mercy, is what God is all about. It’s supposed to be what we are all about. In season and out of season. When it’s convenient, and when it’s not. That’s what steadfast means. It means strong love. Unshakeable love. That’s what we’re talking about.
One last way to translate the word chesed is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a whole subject all by itself. It’s so important that it’s built right into the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. . .” (Matthew 7:12)
Forgiveness can be hard to do, because it seems like giving up, or like giving in. It can seem like encouraging injustice. If I forgive someone, am I letting them get away with it?
Forgiveness isn’t forgetting that wrong has been done. Forgiveness doesn’t mean excusing evil.
Forgiveness means saying, “You have done me wrong. By rights, everything ought to be over between us. But I’m going to take the high road here. I choose not to let what you have done control what I am going to do.”
That’s what forgiveness means. It’s a choice, and it represents freedom. Evil does not control us. Evil doesn’t have the last word. We can choose to be people who live, and forgive.
And it’s not just a one-time thing. Forgiveness is a lifestyle. We forgive, and we forgive again, and we forgive again. People who love God, who follow in the way of Jesus, learn to love forgiveness, because it’s God’s way. Choosing not to return evil for evil is a way of life.
That’s all I really want to say this morning. Please take all this, and think about it till next time, and reflect on this one verse:
“What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”