There are two stories contending for you and me, what Walter Brueggemann describes as two "competing scripts," we all live within. (1)
One goes like this:
The powerful matter, the weak do not
Having more makes you better, your worth is earned, others are nothing more than a competition for resources or an obstacle in your way, they should be managed, controlled, used to further yourself, or eliminated
The one who dies with the most toys wins, life begins in self-sufficiency.
There is not enough to go around so take what you can get before someone else does
God is keeping score, and so should we.
We’ll call that the Dominant Script.
The other one is the truth that God has been seeking to communicate with us in countless ways from the beginning of time, and that is this: It all begins in gift, and abundance.
You are made for connection and communion. On this journey of life that begins in gift and ends in connection and communion, the people traveling alongside you are neighbor, friend, brother and sister, not threats, rivals or competitors. You need each other to be whole, and what we have is for sharing, life doesn’t make sense alone and isolated and against, you are created for relationship with God and with each other, and there is no such thing as one without the other.
We’ll call this the Kingdom of God Script.
If you listen for the scripts – you'll hear them everywhere around us. We are constantly being told the Dominant Script is true, and from time to time, experiencing life-giving glimpses of the Kingdom of God Script.
In fact, it wouldn’t be too far off to say that to be a Christian means to be people who are forced to live in that tension all the time, or even to say that tension lives within us.
We can’t escape the dominant script of our culture – you can hear it in virtually every news story, every ad, every political message or pressure to succeed, in our fear of death, fear of the other, fear of failure. We're ranking, comparing, keeping score, silencing those who expose the script or don’t fit it, judging ourselves and others for falling short.
The reason we need each other as a community, that we worship together and pray with each other, and share each other’s joys and burdens, and confess, and speak out forgiveness, and hear words of hope, and don’t just go about our lives with our personal relationship with God is that we need to hear, taste, touch, feel, see again the other script. The noise of the dominant script is so loud and surround sound that it threatens to drown out the truth.
So we get together with others, refusing to be defined by the dominant script, remembering together what is true, and finding together the strength to live out the simple truth in the face of such prevalent lies. To be connected, and encouraged, and empowered go from here watching for and seeking opportunities to live into in the Kingdom of God script instead of the Dominant script, is the reason we are Church.
Jesus exposed the Dominant script everywhere he could, and invited people into the Kingdom of God script every way he could. But the tension between these two scripts goes way back, and are all stirred into Israel’s dealings with each other from the very beginning.
By the time we get to Micah, Israel has known what is to be defined by God’s love and care, in a relationship of trust and dependence, and they’ve also known what it is to be on top. They have had beloved leaders like David, and kingdom builders like Solomon, but they’ve also seen the script of self-sufficiency and scorekeeping invade their beloved and wise leadership (and their corrupt and evil leadership too), with pursuit of power, flexing of might, ignoring the weak and impressing the strong.
And in Micah’s day the twelve tribes of Israel – which were descended from Jacob’s sons – have split into two kingdoms. The Northern Kingdom is ten tribes who broke off after Solomon’s reign; the Southern Kingdom is the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and Micah lived in a rural part of the Southern Kingdom. As a prophet, Micah blasts the political and religious leaders for operating in the dominant script, seeking power, working for personal self-gain at the expense of the greater good, allowing the poor to be overlooked, failing to maintain true justice. He prophesies in a time where the Asyrian army was conquering throughout the land and was now hovering on the outskirts of Jerusalem in their quest for world domination, (and, indeed, they end up taking Jerusalem as well).
In case you think this current model of leadership will continue, Micah declares in a prophesy we hear again in Advent, you should know that a new leader will come, one as of old, from the boondocks far from the center of power, Bethlehem. In weakness, not power, in obscurity, not fame. The leader, who reminds us how things are meant to be from ancient days, does not follow the dominant script, but comes instead in the Kingdom of God.
Then we come to the second part of our reading – in which there is an imaginary courtroom set up, with the earth and mountains standing as witness and jury, and a grieved, sorrow-filled God demanding an answer from God’s people:
Listen to me! How have I offended you? Remember- I am the God who delivered you from slavery? I love you, I have guided and saved and protected you. See how I love you? How could you abandon my way?
And, because we write God into the dominant script, making God in our own image, the people answer,
What do you want from me, God? What would satisfy you? How can I get you off my back? What will shut you up, please your ego, appease your anger? Give you the glory you must be craving? Do you want rivers of oil? Ten thousand? My own kid, would that be enough?
But God is not like us. So Micah tells them,
God has already shown you what is good. What you were born for, how it is all supposed to work. What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?
Let’s spend a minute with this response. It’s fuller and more profound than we can tell at first glance, and it gently reminds the people again of the real script.
We’re going to hear a little bit of Hebrew!
What does the Lord require?
Require is darah. It is not like a test requirement or a harsh expectation. It has undertones of affection – it is like a child requiring her mother’s love and flowers requiring sunshine; it has a sense of interdependence in it. It’s a seeking, and in the Old Testament is used both for how lovers need, seek, long for, one another, and for how a careful shepherd seeks a frightened lost sheep.
What does the Lord require of us? Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. One scholar explains, “God seeks them, yearns for them, and frankly needs them from us as intimate partners in God’s adventure down here.” (2)
On Tuesday I stood in the voting booth looking at the names of judges, which usually is a complete guessing game. But this year, I knew a bit more about the candidates. I found an online guide with interviews with the judges so you could see what they stand for. And, based on those answers, it seems that God’s requirement of doing justice and loving mercy should be in contrast. One judge articulated very well a commitment to justice, fairness, punishment for offenders and firmly sticking to laws, another expressed a more compassionate sense of mercy, understanding, recognition of the humanity of those who stand before the bench.
Which one should prevail?
Here, in God’s alternative script, they are not in contrast at all, they are woven together, interdependent and essential to one another.
Doing justice. Mishpat. Mishpat is not about punishing evil and rewarding good. It is not about fairness. It means ensuring that everyone has what they need.
Do that kind of justice – caring for the neediest among you, it’s active, not passive. It’s in daily choices of resisting competition and seeking equity, of lifting up other instead of serving only ourselves. Of noticing those being left out or struggling, and reaching out to bring them to the proper place, alongside each other.
God is not asserting that those with power be fair, God is “inviting all of us to be sharers, to build a deeper, richer kind of community.” (2)
Loving Mercy/Kindness– Hesed. There isn’t even a word that comes close to this in English. It’s "loving-kindness," compassion, with a fiercely loyal commitment to stand by each other no matter what. It’s a word used all the time for God’s covenant relationship with us, and is, in fact, the very fabric of our life together in the Kingdom of God. Standing-with-you.
And we are to love it- to wake up thinking about it, and watch for it throughout the day, and revel in it, write songs about it and, let it invade us and shape us, this standing-with-you-ness.
And finally, Walking Humbly with God – hatzn’a. This is a really rare word in ancient Hebrew, so rare that scholars are not completely not sure what it means. It could be translated something like, attentively, wisely, carefully, or with humility. It’s to move about our lives in the simple truth about ourselves and God – honesty about who is we are and who God is.
So just in case we want to import the words “Justice” and “kindness” into our dominant script, and judge ourselves by how well we’re doing justice or loving kindness, measure others by their failure to do either one, compete, rank, score points with God or others, or even guage how humble we might be at the moment, we are reminded that we’re called to be honest and attentive, human alongside other humans, broken, struggling and imperfect, with a God who loves us with a hesed kind of love, and who is calling us always and ever into a mishphat, hesed, hatzn'a kind of life in the world. And we are to focus on that God, instead of always measuring our own or others’ worthiness.
I want to take a few minutes and listen together as Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest, describes the reality God is calling the people back to, and give us a chance to contemplate how Micah’s words might call us back as well. Listen, as he speaks, for the contrast between the dominant script’s version of things and the Kingdom of God mishphat-justice, hesed-standing-with-you-ness, and hatzn'a-attentive humility.
God of justice that knows no end
Kindness that knows no bounds
And humility that knows no pride,
Stir within us the desire to know you deeply
Follow you fearlessly,
And live our lives as a prayer to you.
(1) Check our Walter Brueggemann's piece "Scripts" on The Work of the People.
(2) Thanks to James C. Howell's book, What Does the Lord Require? Doing Justice, Loving Kindness, Walking Humbly.
(3) Prayer by Kathy Wolf Reed.