Leading in Love
One of the clearest insights of the Reformers was on the concept of vocation. Luther said that individual Christians had obligations to walk by faith in their Christian life, but they also had important obligations in whatever employment they had. It was as important to be an honest banker, for instance, as an honest pastor. Crafting well-made shoes was the obligation placed upon Christian cobblers. Ruling with justice was the duty of the Christian in government. Luther knew that society was best run when those in it truly loved one another. Love of one’s neighbor was the ordering principle for any just and healthy society. And if that is true of societies in which Christians live, it was certainly true of Israel. Israel as a whole, just like believers today, was intended to be a light to the nations. That encompassed every facet of their society – from the leadership down to the tradesmen and farmers.
But it began with the leaders. And yet in Micah’s day, the leaders not only were abdicating their responsibilities as rulers in Israel, they were in fact engaged in horrific practices. That is, they were not simply leaving things undone that they ought to have done, they were doing things they ought not do.
So Micah must began another sermon. And he addressed it directly to the leaders: “Hear now, heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel.” I Preaching to rulers – fearlessly reminding them of their failings and responsibilities – is a difficult thing. Nevertheless, this is exactly what Micah does.
Micah’s condemnation of the rulers is based upon a simple charge: They had ignored the justice they were entrusted to carry out. The irony is that, according to 2 Chronicles 19:6-7, justice was the one thing rulers were supposed to practice. When the king appointed judges he said,
Consider what you are doing, for you do not judge for man but for the LORD who is with you when you render judgment. 7 Now then let the fear of the LORD be upon you; be very careful what you do, for the LORD our God will have no part in unrighteousness or partiality or the taking of a bribe.
They were given one command, which Micah reminded them of. And they had not kept it. They were unjust.
But their injustice went beyond mere dereliction of duty. Micah called referred to them as those who ‘hate good and love evil.’ These are likely covenant terms. And they represent the exact opposite of what Israelite leaders were supposed to be. They were supposed to love good and to hate evil. Everything about them was wrong.
Then Micah begins to paint a picture. The picture draws upon some of the most gruesome conceivable images. In fact, the images presented are those of human sacrifice. But the human sacrifice is treated in an almost mundane way; it is human sacrifice in the home.
The sacrifices of the rulers were human sacrifices. Their denial of justice (v 1) is described in terms of tearing off the skin and ripping the flesh off the bones of those whom they were entrusted to protect (v 2).
The image continues in verse 3: “Who eat the flesh of my people, strip off their skin from them, break their bones and chop them up as for the pot and as meat in a kettle.” In Israel at that time, cooking pots were not large enough for the larger bones to be cooked whole. Large bones needed to be broken for families to home-cook their meals. It is almost hard to conceive putting these two images together – human sacrifice and the evening meal. But nevertheless, there is a reason for this connection. No one – in Micah’s time or in ours – would conceive of human sacrifice practiced as an everyday way of putting meat on the table. And yet, by depriving people of basic justice, by taking advantage of them for profit, the rulers were in effect doing just this. They were filling their basic desires – even their desires for feasting and celebration – at the expense of the people. As these rulers sat at home enjoying their wealth and ease, those in Israel were having land confiscated, houses destroyed, and inheritances taken away. The confiscated land, houses, and inheritances were funding the corrupt chieftains of Israel.
What was the problem with this? Well first, it was the opposite of loving one’s neighbor. Anytime we look at others as simply a means to an end, or as a way of securing for ourselves greater wealth and luxury, we are far away from the ideals of the Law, or of the teachings of the Bible – not least the teachings of Jesus Himself.
There are all sorts of ways in which we do this today. When we dehumanize someone as an object of our lust, we are ignoring their value, just as if we cooked them up in order to fill our stomachs. When we take advantage of others in order to make money, we do the same thing. When the rights of others do not concern us, because their defense might bring us discomfort, we are engaging in the sin of these rulers.
And, though it may go without saying, when Israelite rulers engaged in this sort of love for evil, they looked no different from the nations around them. Just as Micah had said in his earlier sermon, they were taking away the splendor of God from its display in Israel.
And they were also – by virtue of their position – explicitly failing in their vocation. This is why rulers in particular were singled out. Love of neighbor – and the dehumanizing that is its opposite – is an issue that affected every level of Israelite society. But the rulers in particular were sinning twice. They were not loving their neighbor, instead enjoying profit joined at the expense of others. And, as verse 1 makes clear, they were ignoring the job God had entrusted to them. Our own vocational responsibilities may not overlap quite as neatly with our general Christian obligations. But we too cannot avoid recognizing that God takes our vocational responsibilities to society seriously. Our failure in this regard can have profound and serious social consequences.
There were tragic personal consequences for those practicing this evil and injustice as well. And here too we must hear a warning: “Then they will cry out to the LORD, But He will not answer them. Instead, He will hide His face from them at that time because they have practiced evil deeds” (3:4).
Micah had already preached about the coming destruction. In chapter 2 he made it clear that it would be ‘painful.’ But, worse than facing certain destruction, those in Israel would face destruction on their own. They would cry in anguish to the Lord, but He would not answer. At the moment when they needed the Lord’s help most desperately, He would not give it.
This is yet another ironic judgment from the mouth of the Lord. The rulers were the very people to whom the citizens of Israel should have been able to cry out. And yet, when Israelites cried for justice, there was none to be found. Although the rulers were supposed to know justice, all they practiced was selfish exploitation. Thus God too, though a God of justice and righteousness, would not listen to them when they cried to Him for help.
And what about us? Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that the same warning applies to us today? You see, loving our neighbor has everything to do with our relationship with God. The apostle John writes this: “The one who says he is in the Light and yet hates his brother is in darkness until now…the one who hates his brother is in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 John 2:9, 11).
Do you see the point? Fellowship with God is incompatible with evil. It is incompatible, specifically, with hating our neighbor and seeing other human beings as merely means to fulfilling our own ambitions and desires. When the leaders of Israel practiced their evil deeds, God hid His face from them, even when they finally wanted to cry out to Him.
Where are leaders who take these things seriously? They are rare, to be sure. But, more to the point, where are Christians who take love of neighbor seriously? I think we often separate our spiritual life – our love of God – with our love of those who are unlike ourselves. But James teaches us that faith without works is dead, and the way in which we respond to our brothers’ cries for justice says much about the validity of our faith. God will judge us for this. But remember too the glory which we look forward to. We look at each other, and at our leaders, and we see a tragic dehumanizing tendency. We see gross negligence in the performance of God-given vocations. Which makes the coming of the Lord – good Shepherd and righteous King – all the more welcome. Societies like Israel, and cultures like ours primarily make us reflect some other words from the apostle John: “Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus.”