What God Expects – Justice
January 14, 2018
In 2010, Harry Markopolos wrote a book with an interesting title. It was called No One Would Listen. The book is Markopolos’ own story. You see, in the late 1990s, Harry Markopolos worked for a financial firm that was competing against a rival firm that was returning amazing results to its investors. Markopolos was asked by his boss to study their competitor, figure out the secret of their success and thus help their own firm to institute similar practices so that they could be more competitive.
But, as Markopolos began to study this rival firm what he began to realize was that what their competitor was doing was both impossible and thus the result of illegal behavior. Harry Markopolos took his findings to the Securities and Exchange Commission three different times. In 2000, 2001 and 2005. On three separate occasions, he warned the authorities that this other fund and their manager, a man by the name of Bernie Madoff, were actually deceiving their investors and that Madoff’s strategy was not the result of his financial prowess but rather the result of a criminal scheme. But, as Markopolos said through the title of the book about this period in his life and about the now infamous character Bernie Madoff – No One Would Listen.
The Old Testament prophet Micah would have understood fully the pain of Harry Markopolos. For the same thing happened to him and to the other prophets like Micah who dared to speak up in the later Old Testament. The prophets, Micah, and the others, rightly recognized the mistakes that many of the Israelite leaders as well as their fellow Israelite neighbors were making as well as the disastrous ends to which those poor decisions would ultimately lead them. They recognized that Israel, again in its leaders and its people, was moving away from God. They spoke up, pointed out the bad decisions and suggested corrections. But, again, no one listened.
In Micah’s case, his is a well worn, often told story. According to scripture, Micah was from the town of Moresheth in the south of Judah which is to say in southern Israel. Moresheth was a small, rural town and thus Micah was not a prominent person. So, when Micah shared his observations that the Israelite leadership in both the northern section and in the southern section of the country were taking the people in the wrong direction and that they were behaving and leading in ways contrary to what God desired, it should not come as a surprise that no one listened to him for he was a nobody from nowhere.
His assertion that both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Israel would be overthrown by foreign powers if their leaders and the people didn’t change their ways was seen as absurd, ridiculous and as the ramblings of a country bumpkin. Yet, everything that Micah said would happen did happen. The Northern Kingdom would first fall to the Assyrians in the 700s BCE and the Southern Kingdom would fall to the Babylonians in the 500s BCE.
In general, the prophecies of Micah serve as a strong reminder that we should never discount the observations and good words of someone just because of where they are from, how old they are, what their pedigree is or just because they don’t appear to have a lot of clout.
At the same time, Micah also serves as a sterling example of the fact that just because observations, predictions or warnings don’t come to pass right away, we should not write them off or dismiss them. Again, everything Micah said would happen did happen. But, it didn’t happen overnight or quickly and thus his words were ignored. In fact, in some instances, the results that Micah rightly foresaw were centuries away from coming to pass.
What Micah is best known for and where Micah becomes most helpful is in chapter 6. For this little book doesn’t just name all of the problems such as Israel’s now empty religion of going through the motions with no real heart for for God, its worship of foreign gods or the way that supposedly good, God fearing Israelites were taking advantage of the poor. No, Micah doesn’t just name the issues, he also provides the solution.
It comes in one of the most remembered statements in all of the prophetic books. It comes in verse eight of this sixth chapter where Micah in essence says that in the midst of all the bad choices there are three good choices that God is looking for in his followers. Micah says that God wants people who do justice. God wants people who love kindness and God wants people who will walk humbly with him.
I want to suggest to us that there are six very important words here. Yes, there are the three big words that jump off the page – justice, kindness and humility. But there are also three other major words. They are do, love and walk.
When we took our children here at First Baptist to Passport Camp this past summer I found it interesting that this verse from Micah was their theme verse for the week. Each day we talked about justice, kindness and mercy. But our shirts for the week capitalized the other three words I mentioned a moment ago. The words do, love and walk. The point was and is that Micah is inviting us not to only talk about justice, kindness or mercy but rather to live these three traits out or to embody them with our lives. Micah’s three things that God requires are not just good talking or preaching points – they are behavioral adjustments and guides for every day living in relationships with each other.
So, for these remaining three weeks in January, I want to ask us a question. If Micah is right, if these are the three things that God requires, what do these traits look like in our lives? And, how do we go about behaving in these ways in this new year of life that God has given us to live?
I want to invite us to consider one of the three traits each week and so for the sake of the limited time that we have remaining this morning, I would ask us, to consider the very first one. What does it mean to do justice?
Let me provide an answer to this question by reiterating something I have already said and then with a personal story that I think really puts flesh and bones on Micah’s idea.
So, what does it mean to do justice? Well, again, it means to behave in ways that are just and fair. Micah is not merely calling us to promote justice. He is not just calling us to start programs or to advocate for fairness. Those things are all good and have value. But, what Micah is really advocating are not just words, new laws or programs. Micah is after people who every day in our work, in our play, in our social events, in our church and everywhere else in between, try to treat all of those that we encounter with fairness, integrity and as someone just as worthy of God’s mercy and grace as are we.
Perhaps the best way that the Bible says this in a succinct way is in a singular statement found in both the Old and New Testaments where we are called “to love our neighbors as ourselves”. Leviticus hands down this statement as an early law to the young Israel in Leviticus 19. Jesus makes the same statement as a defining aspect of his own teachings in both Matthew and in Mark. Jesus also makes the statement in Luke where he pairs it with the story of the Good Samaritan and thus broadens our idea of neighbor to be any fellow human in need not just the person next door.
I have told you before that I grew up in a very rural area. Our home was on 40 acres and my grandfather owned the adjoining 40 acres at the time. There were and are other houses relatively near our home but not as if they were right next door.
When I was in junior high, a family built a new home about a half a mile or so from us. The husband had an outgoing personality and he always spoke to me when I saw him out and about in the community. Every time I ran into him, he would lead off the conversation with the same greeting. “Hello neighbor” he would say.
In his economy of words, a neighbor was anyone that lived in our general community, not necessarily next door or within eyesight or earshot of one’s own home. Over time, and as a young boy, his “hello neighbor” became my “hello neighbor” in response.
A few years later, when I was in High School and driving, I was going home one evening and passed a car on the side of the road. The driver had experienced a flat tire and was out changing it as I drove passed. As I saw the scene and drove past, it suddenly dawned on me that the person on the side of the road, changing their tire was in fact this very man whom I just described who had built a home near ours. As I recognized who I had just seen, I thought to myself, “that was my neighbor”. In that moment, for one of the few times in my life, I stopped the car, turned around and went back to help.
He had expanded my understanding of neighbor which also expanded my sense of responsibility. I had compassion. I felt a need to be helpful. I turned around and went back because I now saw him and thus my responsibility as different than I had before.
The Bible, Micah and Jesus seek the same change in our lives and behavior. They seek to expand our idea of neighbor. They seek to expand our sense of responsibility. In so doing, they invite us in daily, practical, God honoring ways to a life of justice, concrete justice, for all. Amen.