Atypically, I’m posting this before I preach this sermon later this morning. The texts are Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12. In light of what’s going around us, I felt the urge to preach on humility.
Micah was a prophet who lived during the latter part of the eighth century BCE around the reign of Hezekiah. He came from Moresheth, a village southeast of Jerusalem. His name translates approximately as Who is Yahweh? or Who is the Lord?
At that time, economic inequality in Judah was highly pronounced. The wealthy elites had accumulated power and wealth at the expense of small farmers. The wealthy were large landowners as well as officials, the military, and merchants. Traditionally, small farmers were economically self-sufficient, but a market-oriented surplus economy developed by the wealthy class put them in an economically tenuous situation. Add to that the tradition of dividing land among heirs and a growing population, their economic security became more precarious, which diminished their financial cushion to weather bad harvests. The normal obligations of taxation and forced labor led farmers to take out loans, which compounded their burdens. Ultimately, it forced small farmers into perpetual poverty.
Of course, the wealthy class was their source of credit. Thus, they increased their wealth at the farmers’ expense further exacerbating the division between rich and poor. They exploited their inherent advantage and made the poor economically dependent upon them. Consequently, this exploitation and disparity upset society’s social stability.
The wealthy, however, did not intentionally break laws to enrich themselves. Rather, they used the existing legal system and the existing structural weaknesses to their advantage. Furthermore, holding a theological understanding that their prosperity and financial success and security were signs of God’s blessing, they did not question the moral underpinnings and ethical implications of their decisions and actions.
At the same time, Assyria, one of the surrounding nations, began an aggressive expansion campaign through the region, which created a political crisis. It added to the problems pertaining to the economic situation. Hezekiah ultimately had to capitulate, which included paying a hefty tribute to the Assyrian king. This tribute included stripping the gold from the Temple doors (2 Kings 18:13-16). The elites, trying to preserve their power, advantage, and privilege, sought to play one side off the other, but failed. The result destroyed political morality and imposed of an oppressive burden the population.
Thus, the prophets: Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, and Micah. Though not exceedingly wealthy, they were in a better financial position than the farmers they openly supported and on whose behalf they advocated. Thus, Micah could severely critique those who held power and wealth.
He did not accept the wealthy and powerful’s theological complacency. He did not condone their offerings as sufficient to absolve them of their complicity in creating and sustaining the economic oppression which plagued the farmers and poor people. He believed theologically that God led the people out of their oppression in Egypt and that to leverage a system to oppress the people violated God’s intentions.
This morning’s reading from Micah is a poem in which he spoke God’s lament. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!” (v. 3) We might expect Micah to speak harshly to the powerfully wealthy. Yet, he did not accuse them of being a prostitute as Hosea did. Or threaten fire upon them as Amos did. Micah gave voice to God’s weariness that those in power have forgotten God’s grace in their lives. They forgot that God led them to freedom and sustained them for forty years in the wilderness. Micah’s words did not threaten.
Rather, he declared that all the Lord requires is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.” Not a threat, but a simple and clear commandment.
Arrogance and hubris, greed and self-centeredness. They are easy by-products of power. The wealthy used a legal system to accumulate power and amass wealth. They used this system for their own ends and ignored the burden their desires imposed upon the people from whom they extracted their wealth. But the power they accumulated was not enough for them. They wanted more, and so, worked to gain more until it all came crashing down.
People who hold power must use it responsibly. Indeed, the more power we have, the greater the responsibility required of us. Underlying that responsibility is humility. Micah essentially told the powerful that God is paramount and the apex of all life, theirs included. We, as recipients of God’s gracious generosity, should never lose sight of our relationship with God and that relationship calls upon us to remain humble.
Jesus essentially said the same when he stood before the crowd and preached the Beatitudes, the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. When he spoke of the kingdom of heaven, he turned this world on its head. Essentially, Jesus’ message proclaimed that to find true peace and justice rooted in love, we cannot find it when we live by the rules of this world. We must live by God’s laws and commandments. Power, then, in the kingdom of heaven comes from humility. Power necessitates our full awareness of how and what we do impacts all those around us and its consequences seen and unseen. It was true then, and is true now.
Jesus told the disciples and the crowd around him that in their humble lives, they are God’s servants. They are blessed because they are loved and in response to that love must be merciful, must be pure in heart, must be peacemakers. In response to God’s love they should stand with the oppressed in spite of hate and persecution directed at them.
Blessings come in our humility and our faithfulness to God’s desires for us, which are to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. We won’t find blessing or happiness when we think and act for our own self-interests, pursue our own self-seeking schemes, strive to become fabulously wealthy, allow fear to replace love, or trust weapons of violence and destruction to achieve peace.
Humility leaves space for gratitude, which allows us to remember that what we have is God’s. It allows us to acknowledge that our spiritual gifts enable us to succeed and that real success comes when everyone around us is lifted up too. Humility acknowledges that we don’t have all the answers and are hardly perfect, thus leaving room for doubt and questions even when we are confident of ourselves. Humility embraces the belief that demonstrations of real strength come through restraint. Humility defines leadership as service, not domination. Humility accepts that we have no control over the lives of others or even our own. Humility finds awe in even the simple and oftentimes pedestrian aspects of life.
Who is Yahweh? It’s not us. To live as though we are, we will fail. The fallout could harm people around us. Dwelling in the kingdom of heaven means we must live humbly. We will find true peace and justice rooted in steadfast love when we submit to God’s ways and trust in Jesus’ teaching. Then, the blessings of the kingdom of heaven will be upon us.