What does the Lord require? – 1) Justice

Good morning, Friends!

I want to do something a little different this morning and for the next couple of weeks. Usually I choose a new Scripture each week. We talk about it, we pray about it, and try to understand it. Then the next week, we move on.

Today, we’re going to look at a famous verse from the Bible and talk about it. But then next week, and the week after that, I’m planning for us to come back, and look at it again — for three Sundays in a row.

Don’t think you can come here today, and then skip the next two Sundays. Because each week, we’re going to learn something new about it.

Anyway, our Scripture is going to be from the Old Testament, from the prophet Micah. Micah lived about 700 years before the time of Jesus. He was a younger contemporary of the prophet Isaiah.

He talks a lot about the power of God, and he talks a lot about how foolish and wicked and mistaken the people of his time have become.

Micah has a lot of hope for the future. Micah is the prophet who says:

In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains; it shall be raised up above the hills.

People will come running to it. Many nations shall say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths. . .

“He shall judge between many peoples, and arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid. . .”

Micah 4:1-4

But the verse from Micah that I really want us to focus on for the next three weeks is much shorter. Here it is.

“He has showed you, o mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Micah 6:8

“Justice” starts off sounding pretty simple. Live right. Do right. Obey the law. Be a good person.

But everybody knows it’s the simple things that often have a world of complications, when we try to live them out. Even when we think we know the good, it isn’t always easy to do the good.

Justice is an idea which is woven throughout the whole fabric of the Bible. God loves justice. God hates injustice. Whoever neglects to learn and practice justice is neglecting something which God cares about very much.

Justice isn’t about getting even. It’s not a tit-for-tat revenge. That’s only the crudest form of justice.

You’ve probably heard the old saying, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life” (Exodus 21:23-25) That’s not the height of justice. Whenever we sink to that level, things have gone horribly wrong.

Justice has to do with law and fairness. Revenge and punishment are when people fail to do what’s right. Revenge and punishment aren’t justice. The whole structure that we refer to as “the justice system” is really the breakdown of what justice is all about.

The word in the Bible that we translate as “law” is also translated as covenant, as relationship. It is also translated as the teaching of God, or as the wisdom of God.

When people fail to live in a good relationship with each other, or when we fail to live according to the covenant, the promise, which God has made with us, then things break down in terrible ways.

We create legal systems that even lawyers don’t understand. We hear arguments about the exact legal degree to which someone has been murdered, without ever getting to the individual tragedy or the breakdown of community that leads to the taking of human life.

There are so many people who feel that the system has broken down now. They feel that the laws are unfairly applied. They feel that their rights are being stripped away. They don’t feel responsible to their country or their community. They feel that the police are their enemy. It’s got so that “justice” is not a good word for a lot of people today.

God’s law – God’s justice – God’s wisdom – talks about lots of things that we shouldn’t do. God’s justice is something much more positive than a long list of “thou shalt not’s”.

In the Bible, for instance, it says that when you harvest, you should always leave the corners of your field unharvested, so that the poor of the community can come and gather what you’ve left, so that they will have something to eat. (see Leviticus 19:9-10, Deuteronomy 24:19-21) That’s justice.

The Bible constantly commands us to look out for people who can’t look out for themselves. It always talks about the widow and the orphan, about the person from another country who’s living among us, about the fair treatment of servants and even of animals. That’s justice.

Today, we would have to include the physically helpless and the mentally disabled, the people who can’t speak up for themselves, the people who have no advocate.

The Bible talks constantly about justice for the poor. Caring for the poor is one of the most fundamental ways to “do justice” that there is.

There are some really telling illustrations of this in the gospels. We’ve all heard the story of the rich young man, the guy who came to Jesus and said, “What good deed must I do to have the life that never ends?”

And Jesus said, “If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

So this guy asked, “Which ones?”

And Jesus said, “Don’t kill. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t bear false witness. Honor your parents. Love your neighbor as yourself.”

And the young man said, “I do all those! What’s missing?”

And Jesus said, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell everything you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” (see Matthew 19:16-22; Mark 10:17-31, Luke 18:18-30)

I hate that story! I try to be good. I pay my taxes. I don’t even spit on the sidewalk. And along comes Jesus, and says, “That’s great, but if you really want to talk about justice, here’s something more.”

Another gospel story – the one about Zaccheus in the gospel of Luke. Zaccheus was a truly awful person. He was a traitor — he had sold out his own people. He was the chief tax collector for the Romans for the whole district.

Everybody was upset because when the parade came down the road, Zaccheus was up in a tree trying to see over the crowd. Jesus called Zaccheus by name out there in the crowd, and Jesus went to have lunch at Zaccheus’ house.

But Zaccheus stood up and he said, “Lord, I’m going to give half of everything I have to the poor. If I have taken anything from anybody wrongly, I will pay it back, with 400% interest.”

And Jesus said, “Salvation came to this house today. This person is also a son of Abraham. He has rejoined the community.” (see Luke 19:1-10)

That is authentic, biblical justice. The poor get help. The people who are wronged get restitution. And the person who hurt them is restored to the community. When justice happens, the whole community is healed. All the people are truly saved.

It isn’t always that easy to figure things out. I have lived through a lot of situations where what was “justice” wasn’t all that obvious.

One piece of justice often involves getting to the truth. Quakers have had this thing for a long time about telling the truth. Tell the truth all the time. If you always tell the truth, your conscience is clear. You don’t even have to remember what you said before. That’s where dishonest people get in trouble. They always have to remember all the lies they told.

Jesus said, “Don’t swear at all. Let your yes be yes, and let your no be no. Anything else comes from the devil.” (Matthew 5:37)

So, Quakers don’t like to swear. Not in court. Not take loyalty oaths. Not on job applications. Quakers don’t like to swear.

You’ll see sometimes in court, they’ll ask, “Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”

A lot of Quakers will say, “NO. I will tell the truth. But I will not swear. Jesus wants us to tell the truth all the time. If I take an oath, does that mean I’m going to lie the rest of the time?”

(By the way, in every state there’s a special exception in the law, that was put there for Quakers. If in good conscience you don’t want to swear, you can simply affirm that you’re telling the truth, and that’s OK.)

But a lot of things can get better, if we start with the truth. Hearing it. Saying it. Doing it.

Did this happen? Yes or no. Did somebody say that? It’s not a hard question to answer.

Does this belong to me? Did I take it? Was it right for me to take it?

Is what we’re doing going to make this better now? Is it just a quick fix, or does something more need to happen?

Have everyone’s rights and needs been respected here? Has everyone been listened to? Do they think so?

We can’t always make things perfect. But we can almost always try to make things better.

There are always many steps on a journey. But can we take one or two small steps today? Can we do just one thing right here? Can we say one word truthfully?

Justice in today’s world isn’t always easy. Some people have to give up things. Other people have to let go of things.

But the alternative – living in a world without justice, letting things go on and get worse – that’s not so great, either. The whole world cries out for justice, not just for revenge but for making things right, for doing things God’s way again.

As I said at the beginning, we’re going to have three weeks of reflection on this Scripture, so don’t feel we covered everything today. We can take our time.

I’d like you to take this Scripture home, and think about it, and let me know what your questions are. Next Sunday, let’s bring it back again, and see if we can inch it a little further.

“God has showed you what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

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