When I was kid, our elementary school had a deathtrap playground. You know the kind I’m talking about, right? Swing sets held aloft by rusted chains hanging since Kennedy was president. Slides made of polished metal sheets welded to steel frames and coming apart at the seams with jagged edges sticking up to tear at your clothes and your skin. Our favorite menacing piece of equipment was made from unfinished railroad ties bolted together to create a fortress, at least we saw it as a fortress. There was a double decker platform on one end with a tire swing and rope bridge that attached to a platform on the other end.
The coup de grace, however, was the wide slide. The wide slide seemed a massive edifice to us. My skinny little first grade self saw it as a great beast sticking out its tongue. In truth, it was about six feet wide, five feet tall, and made of wood timbers with a single sheet of metal nailed to a wooden platform. There was almost never a moment when it wasn’t covered with children and the reason for that was our favorite game. The game involved a row of kids sliding down the slide, usually four at a time and a row of kids trying to run up the slide over and past them. Genius, right? We kept the school nurse busy during the middle of the day that was for sure. Kids were constantly falling on one another, off the slide, and being knocked down to the bottom.
There was one rule about this game that was sacrosanct: you can’t grab anyone on your way down. You could only slide. No use of hands or feet. And you could always tell when somebody cheated because someone got hurt. Grabbing or kicking someone always ended with someone running to the teacher and the game being over. We knew the rule. The teachers knew the rule. Failing to abide by it ended the game.
But there were always those kids. You know the kids I’m talking about. They always feel like they’re the one kid who can get away with flaunting the rules. They’re the popular kid or the bully or whatever. And invariably, the game ends because they reach up and grab someone or they kick at someone. The person falls off and goes to tell the teacher the rules are not being followed and now they’re hurt.
Last week we began our series on Conversations with Micah and talked about Micah denouncing the Social Ills of his time. We looked at the state of things leading up to the Assyrian Captivity in 722 BCE and how Micah used a doom and hope approach. We talked about how the wealthy used their power and privilege to exploit the poor, the widow, and the orphan, three classes of people God champions again and again through the bible. Today we move from the first two chapters to chapter three where Micah issues a warning to the corrupt rulers of the land.
This warning is presented in the form of a question: “Should you not know justice?” or as it reads in the Message Bible, “Don’t you know anything of justice?” The prophetic message declares the rulers know the rules, know the law of Moses, know the words of the prophets, but have blatantly chosen to ignore them. And like the kids on the slide, people get hurt. People get hurt because those in power make certain assumptions about their power.
First, they assume it is rightfully theirs. Kings, priests, and rulers in the ancient world often came from a particular family line. In Israel and Judah, kings traced their lineage back to David, priests to the Levites. It was assumed your connection to a certain family meant you had a right to rule. When the Israelites ask Samuel for their first king in 1 Samuel 8. God says kings will take your sons, your daughters, your fields, your vineyards, your grain, your animals, basically the wealth of the land for themselves in the name of being a proper king. This is what rulers do according to God, they take because they assume they have the right.
This idea of the right to rule brings us to the second assumption, their prosperity or power made them fit to rule. The assumption is based on retributive theology. The idea is those who are blessed are blessed because God sees them favorably and those who are not must be doing something wrong. The rulers assume because they have money and power, God gave them both because they deserved them. The Book of Job wrestles with this idea, declaring it wrong, and in the end, God says Job is a righteous man whether he has money and power or not.
The third and final thing I will mention is they assume popular opinion or tradition justifies their actions. Their behavior was the behavior of kings by right and by blessing as it had always been. Their tradition went all the way back to David and for the priests back to Aaron and the Levites. Never mind that the true traditions had been obscured and ignored over the years through interpretations and legal decisions in their favor. It was tradition. Kings and priests have always been deferred to, so they deserve to be.
The prophet denounces all of this. The behavior of the ruling elite will bring about justice, complete justice from God. God’s response will be to plow Zion down as though it were a field, to turn Jerusalem into a heap of ruins, to reduce the mountain temple of great trees to a scraggly stand of scrub pines. The fault lies not with God but with the rulers and their manipulative systems they created to gain and maintain power.
This is where justice comes in. As we said, the prophet declares God’s justice will be complete. So, what is justice or being just? Justice, by one definition, is the ability to discern between good and evil, and to put forward the good and right. By another, justice is balancing the scales. But I don’t think we can engage justice without understanding the motivations for it: love and rightness. God’s love for all means God desires all should be treated justly. This is the prophet’s message, the word of God. And it was not only in Micah’s day but throughout Israel’s history.
Leviticus 25:35 says, “If one of your fellow Israelites faces financial difficulty and is in a shaky situation with you, you must assist them as you would an immigrant or foreign guest so that they can survive among you.” The following text speaks of how the Israelites have an obligation to their fellow Israelites, especially those who struggle. Jesus gives us instruction in Matthew 25 for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the unclothed, the sick and the imprisoned. Notice Jesus doesn’t mention nationality or social status. Nor does he mention any of the other means we use to separate ourselves out of fear.
Do we live by God’s justice or the world system’s justice? I think we know the answer to that, but I think a good Methodist answer is found in our Social Creed. It reads:
In the tradition of our prophetic forebearers may you seek justice for those who have neither the means nor the power to do so for themselves. Let us go and live lives that declare God’s love for all that all should be treated justly.
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