Have you ever given (or received) a gift that wasn’t appreciated? We can put all our thoughtfulness, creativity and even love into giving a gift, and sometimes it just doesn’t connect. One must truly know the intended recipient to understand what they would want and what would connect with them. With Christmas not very distant in the past and Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, many of us know the pressure of trying to find a gift that will convey love meaningfully. This week’s lectionary passages circle around what gifts God truly desires from people.
We often see the well-known passage of Micah 6:8 in churches and on social media: do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. What is less-often discussed is the context in which this verse is written. God, through the prophet, is having a one-sided argument with the people. Some scholars even see this section as a sort of divine lawsuit against the people for violating the terms of the covenant. God calls the mountains and hills (Rashi, the 11th-century French sage, says these represent the patriarchs and matriarchs) to witness against the people Israel.
In Micah 6, God feels insulted and angry that the people claim that God has wearied them (3). Rashi understands that the people are tired of the expense and work of worshiping God in the temple. So God sets out to remind them why they might want to worship God. Out of the house of slavery in Egypt, God freed the people. God gave Aaron, Moses and Miriam as priest and prophets, respectively. God protected the Holy Community from the schemes of Balak and Balaam as they worked together to curse God’s people and turn God and the Israelites against each other (see Numbers 22-24; 31:16).
The plan worked for a while, but Phinehas, Aaron’s son, turned back God’s anger. Micah’s reference to the episode of the Baal of Peor at Shittim is a not very subtle reference to the disaster that happened when the Israelites turned from worshiping God in the ways God desires to focus on what they wanted to do in worship. God, through Micah, argues that God has always been consistent in taking care of the people, but they have repeatedly lost focus on thanking God in the ways that God likes to be thanked.
God doesn’t want a perfect, expensive offering. Instead, God wants humans to be just to neighbors, to be merciful to people who sin against us, and to stay close with God on this journey of life.
To bring the point home, the prophet asks facetiously what God wants. Does God want burnt offerings, young calves, thousands of rams, a river of oil or even child sacrifice? You can just hear the prophet growing more perturbed as he suggests increasingly costly offerings that all miss the point. A burnt offering is all well and good, but it is meaningless without faithfulness. God doesn’t want a perfect, expensive offering. Instead, God wants humans to be just to neighbors, to be merciful to people who sin against us, and to stay close with God on this journey of life. Those are the gifts of thanksgiving that God desires. If those things are in order, offerings will take care of themselves organically.
In case we missed the point from Micah, as we all do from time to time, Jesus reiterates the prophet’s message again at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount. The poor in spirit are blessed because God will give them the kingdom of heaven. Those who mourn are blessed because God will comfort them. The humble are blessed because God will deed to them the earth. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed because God will satisfy them. The merciful are blessed because God will give them mercy. The pure in heart are blessed because God will reveal Godself to them. The peacemakers are blessed because God will adopt them. Those who are persecuted are blessed because they join the company of the prophets, and God will give them the kingdom of heaven as well.
What God wants—what God treasures—is humble, peaceful, merciful followers, who might even be persecuted for their allegiance to Jesus instead of power or comfort. We don’t have to guess what it is that God wants from us—it’s not a secret. Offerings are nice, but they are a secondary matter. Instead, God wants us to be changed by the Spirit and to live as a response to the good news that God has rescued us. In the Micah passage, God acts first, saving and redeeming the people. Only after recalling that does God ask humans for justice, mercy and faithfulness. In the same way, Jesus will first die to free humans from the powers of sin and death. Then, in response to Jesus’ salvific work, we are called to gentle, merciful, humble faithfulness. These are the gifts that God wants.