We live in quite a broken society. I think we all know this already. Even among believers, there is great conflict regarding issues of racial
tensions, past wrongs, social injustice, etc.
Because such conflicts are prominent, I cannot help but have my ears perk up when justice is a topic of discussion in Scripture. Consider this well-known passage:
6 “With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
7 Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
8 He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:8 is one of those regularly cited verses. It is beautiful. It is poetic. And, if not handled properly, it can be a tool used by folks to bludgeon others into social justice submission.
How can you argue with Micah 6:8. Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God. Amen! Obviously then, some would argue, the focus of the church has to be the restoration of justice for those who have been previously oppressed.
But stop and look at the verse in its context. Honestly, we need to grab more than I cited above, but I fear folks would not read it all. Micah chapter 6 begins with a case between God and his people. The Lord called on his people to remember the way that he led them up out of Egypt and the way that he protected them in the wilderness from the curses of Balak. At the same time, God brought to the minds of his people the way that they, after Balaam could not curse them at Balak’s request, still found a way to rebel against the Lord.
Then God begins with the questions we see in verses 6-7. What should I do to please God? The idea is that of radical offering. The person seeing the tremendous guilt of Israel would wonder what they must do to get right with God. And God points out that some would suggest all sorts of radical things. Should they offer their children as offerings? Should they give mountains of grain and thousands of animal sacrifices? What do they need to do as a people to please the Lord?
And while verse 8 is beautiful and poetic, it also could have been said in a single word: repent. The point that the Lord is making is that these people need to turn from their sins. They had been an unjust nation, as we see in the next verses. People were cheating one another. People were brutalizing one another. People were refusing to obey God’s command to love God and love neighbor. And God tells them that if they want to please him, it is not through going above and beyond in their animal sacrifices. They will please him when they love him enough to obey his commands including his command to love your neighbor as yourself.
God does not want his people to make some sort of man-made, self-imposed radical gesture toward the sins of their past. God is not asking them to hold vigils in which they repeatedly rehash what was wrong in years gone by. God is not asking for them to invert the pyramid and put the formerly oppressed on the top and react to the former oppressors by oppressing them or their children. All the sacrifices that are suggested in verses 6-7 are examples of man’s best idea of how to deal with his sin. But in the end, God tells the people that obeying him now, from today forward, is the best way to go. Repent of your past by treating each other with righteous respect, justice, and equity today.
Now, is God in verse 8 telling the people that no sacrifice is needed for their sins? Is God saying that an individual can live justly enough on his own to not need his sin covered? Of course he is not. We know that from all of the rest of Scripture. But God is saying that the people cannot come up with some sort of extra self-punishing set of ceremonies that will make everything be alright. God just wants the people who are called by his name to follow his word and live in accord with the standards he has given them. He wants his people to love their neighbors and treat them with biblical justice. He wants them to turn to him in faith, obedient to his word, and get under the grace that he offers through the blood of a perfect sacrifice.
Micah is not calling for social justice, at least not in the way that we are defining it today. In fact, the opposite is true. Verses 6-7 would better parallel modern man’s attempt to somehow make things right through acts that God does not command. Modern social justice imposes all sorts of restrictions and punishments that God does not impose. Modern social justice brings in more and more division as mankind finds newer intersections of oppression to develop greater and greater victim statuses. But in the end, God calls his people to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with him. God calls his people not to make up new punishments and restrictions, but to do what he has always commanded. Today, treat people with biblical justice. Today, be kind and merciful to all. Today, walk with the Lord in simple faith and obedience.