Micah 6.1–8 & Matthew 5.1–12
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC,
Fort Collins, CO
Today’s New Testament reading — the Beatitudes from Matthew’s Gospel — is paired in the Lectionary with a brief, important segment of Micah’s prophecy: “He has told you, O Mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
If you know nothing else about the Christian tradition, you probably know the Beatitudes. And if you can quote only one line from the Old Testament, you ought to know Micah 6.8, especially if you’re a member of a UCC congregation. These might even be considered the two dominant, formative texts for progressive Christians. In fact, I would use both texts if I were doing a very quick summary of the gospel message…sort of Good News 101.
When I was a young person growing up in the UCC, we didn’t learn a whole lot about the Bible…not a good thing. But, I do remember memorizing Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes. What Jesus does with these rejoinders of blessings is to set out a social agenda – an agenda that turns the conventional wisdom of his day on its head. I mean, really, who wants to be poor in spirit or grief-stricken or meek or hungry for justice or persecuted for the sake of righteousness or to be despised because of what you believe? Not to many of us, I’m sure. Yet, Jesus says that we are blessed to be in these dire straits. And sometimes it’s not easy to be compassionate or pure in heart, especially when our country is up to its neck in political turmoil. Yet, Jesus claims we are supposed to rejoice and be glad. Now, that’s countercultural!
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Have you ever noticed how some Christians erroneously perceive a dramatic discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament? You know the stereotype: The God of wrath versus the God of love. Wrong! The prophet Micah ends his prophecy this way: “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” [Micah 7.18–19].
So much for the Old Testament God of wrath! (Of course, we can find references to horrendous actions people attribute to God in the Hebrew Bible, but it’s not a uniform account of an avenging God of war.) Likewise, in the New Testament, we have a really hideous account of a couple named Ananias and Sapphira, who withheld some of their wealth from the apostle Peter and the community which was committed to sharing all property in common. The Reader’s Digest version is that both Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead for their greed and deception. So, the God of the New Testament isn’t always the God of forgiveness and agape.
The biblical concept that is translated as “justice” or “righteousness” points to something different than either our familiar concepts of “criminal justice” or “self-righteousness.” God’s justice (which is often distributive or restorative justice, and not so typically vengeance) provides a dramatic point of continuity between the Hebrew social prophets and Jesus. It’s also what made them tremendously unpopular, and it’s one of the reasons many prophets didn’t (and still don’t) lead long, relaxed lives that extend well into old age. This is probably a good week for all of us to remember what Cornel West said, that “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
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One of the concepts that Micah and Jesus lift up is something we are not so likely to address: humility.
For a lot of us, especially women, being humble in our culture meant or means being “less than,” or being lower on the totem pole, that you’re not quite as worthy as someone else. Let’s just eliminate that connotation of humility right now. Neither Micah nor Jesus is talking about that kind of oppressive force. Humility does not mean being a doormat.
Nor is being humble anything like Charles Dickens’ awful character, Uriah Heep, who feigns humility. If you remember that oily character from David Copperfield, you might remember that he is a snakelike creature who is the very embodiment of obsequiousness – the very opposite of true humility. Humility is not a show we put on for others; it’s got to be a deep, inner attitude. Humility is not what others think of us, it’s a way we can think of ourselves. And perhaps it is seeing ourselves as God sees us, warts and all.
So, perhaps humility is about seeing ourselves in perspective. It’s about seeing ourselves in relation to other people, in relation to the earth, and in relation to God.
At the end of February, we will observe Ash Wednesday as the beginning of Lent, and one of the things your ministers say as we apply a bit of ash on your forehead is “from dust you come, to dust you shall return.” Acknowledging our mortality is one of the things that church tradition does to help give us correct perspective. We may be “a little lower than angels,” but one of the things that unites everyone in this room is that at some point, each of us will die. Now, that doesn’t play well in the mainstream media. Advertisers want to us delude ourselves to believe that we can stay (or look) young forever (if we just take Geritol or drive a Lexus SUV or get a couple of strategically placed Botox injections). In doing so, they’ve lulled us into a national state of denial about our finitude and our humanity.
Both the words “human” and “humility” derive from the Latin humus, which means earth. So, when I say “from dust you come; to dust you shall return,” it’s reinforcing not just our humility but also our humanity.
Being humble is acknowledging that none of us is the center of the universe, and that neither are we collectively – as Christians or Americans or even as human beings – the center of the universe. Sometimes we even begin to think of ourselves as being ultimately in charge. The retirement information I get from Fidelity Investments tries to convince me that I’m in control of my retirement. But the reality is that I may never live to see my 401(k) payout; in the final analysis, I’m not in control. So, part of humility is letting go of the pretense that we can control what will be, and instead turning some of that control and worry over to the Holy Spirit.
In Greek tragedy, hubris is the distinctive sense of being anything but humble, and it usually results some form of disaster, often for a king. Hubris is the opposite of humility, and it implies both excessive pride and impiety…playing the role of a god. So, where do you see hubris in your own life? Are there times in your life when you think “it’s all about me,” and you lose track of what’s going on with those around you? Are there times in public life in this country when we see the same sort of thing? Did you see any hubris emanating from Washington, DC, this week? And like any Greek tragedy, hubris will be the downfall of petty tyrants in our own time.
We need to see ourselves in accurate perspective within God’s universe. True humility is neither self-abasement nor self-aggrandizement, but rather knowing our true place among others, in the cosmos, and in relation to God.
Which gets us back to the Jewish tradition of Micah: How do we walk humbly with God? We should see ourselves not as we wish to be seen by others, but rather we ought to see ourselves as God sees us: as God’s children; as imperfect; as one significant, small part of humanity; as part of creation; as God’s beloved. When we have a true sense of ourselves – the sense that God has about us – it will enable us to be in closer communion with the divine with others and with ourselves. An attitude of humility will also help us engender an attitude of thankfulness to God. And as we live with both humility and with gratitude, the fruits of our hands and our hearts will be justice and peace.
May we walk humbly with God, knowing our true place in the world. May we be inheritors of the earth. And may we be live in the knowledge that we are connected to self, to others, to the cosmos, and most intimately to God.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.