Micah was a prophet from the Southern Kingdom of Judah and a contemporary of Isaiah and Hosea. He singles out Samaria and Jerusalem, the capital cities of the northern and southern kingdoms, and the unique centers of influence for their nations. These would be Washington, Los Angeles and New York today. He specifically targets the upper crust, the intelligentsia, and the cultural elite of these cities.
Micah calls both nations’ religious leaders false prophets. As you would expect,they give Micah the same treatment that Amos and Jeremiah received: “Do not prophesy about these things; disgrace will not overtake us.” The religious leaders were peddling the worst sort of false comforts and providing a blessing and support for corrupt leaders. With bitter sarcasm, Micah says that the perfect prophet for these people was a liar and a deceiver who said, “I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer” (2:6–11). “If one feeds them then they proclaim peace” (3:5). “Her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money, yet they lean upon the Lord and say, ‘Is not the Lord among us? No disaster will come upon us.’” (3:11).
He then turns to the civic and cultural elite. Micah paints a horrifying picture of political oppression and economic exploitation by the strong and powerful against the weak and dispossessed. “The powerful dictate what they desire — they all conspire together. The best of them is like a brier, the most upright worse than a thorn hedge” (7:3–4). The rich are people of violence (6:12).
These leaders “tear the skin from my people,” and “break their bones in pieces” (3:2–3). They despise justice, distort the right, take bribes as a matter of course, and are “skilled in doing evil with both hands.” Making it worse, the religious leaders sanctioned this, they legitimized the status quo and said it was all God’s will. They are for hire to endorse anything the leaders do and say.
Micah is the prophet for our times as well.
Our text for this morning is from Micah 2
Woe to those who plan iniquity,
to those who plot evil on their beds!
At morning’s light they carry it out
because it is in their power to do it.
They covet fields and seize them,
and houses, and take them.
They defraud people of their homes,
they rob them of their inheritance.
Lately my people have risen up
like an enemy.
You strip off the rich robe
from those who pass by without a care,
like men returning from battle.
You drive the women of my people
from their pleasant homes.
You take away my blessing
from their children forever.
Get up, go away!
For this is not your resting place,
because it is defiled,
it is ruined, beyond all remedy.
If a liar and deceiver comes and says,
‘I will prophesy for you plenty of wine and beer,’
that would be just the prophet for this people!”
I want to look at four things this morning in this passage from Micah 2.
First, the poor have a particular place in the community of Israel. They are not nameless unfortunates who have been turned over to social service agencies. There were none. We have literally thousands of agencies and non-profits that take care of the poor in our country. In fact, there is a film titled “Poverty, Inc.” that describes the industry that has grown up around the way we handle poverty. It has become impersonal, mass scale and in many ways has done more harm than good. This was never the approach of the Israelite community. There were no people on trips wearing t-shirts saying “We Serve The Poorest of the Poor” or people who used the poor as parts of their campaign to eliminate poverty of one kind or another. The poor had dignity. They were not used to promote organizations or individuals.
Leviticus 25:35 says if a man becomes poor he is to be provided for with work so that he will not become a slave. The Talmud teaches that the best kind of charity is providing a job for a person who has become poor. It is better than a gift because it allows the person to maintain their place in the community and to still have a part in the life of the community. If a man or woman is poor they are not to be put in a separate place away from the rest of the community.
I read this week about two organizations helping churches assist people – not just members – in finding jobs. Jobs For Life in North Carolina works with scores of churches across the country. Church Job Fairs is primarily in Southern California but they are growing. A job is the best anti-poverty measure ever created. We have a Jobs for Life program here at the Christian Women’s Job Corp and I attended one of their meetings this week.
In Atlanta, I have seen housing projects where the poor and the middle class live together. I never thought it would work but it does. In Seattle, Pioneer Human Services took over a hotel and created space for the homeless on the first several floors and space for regular hotel customers on the balance of the floors. I never thought it would work but it does. The poor and the not-poor can live together.
The poor, in Scripture, were not a problem to be solved but a fact of life. They were always going to be in a community. Poverty was not something to be eliminated – but to be handled with respect and dignity. There was no War on Poverty because wars eventually become wars on people. There is no biblical solution for poverty other than people taking care of each other…but that assumes a level of community most of us do not experience. We are no longer tribes in small villages but citizens in large and complex cities. We cannot go back but there are still principles for how we treat the poor.
The way we treat the poor has not always been as it is now. In fact, an essay about poverty by Suzanne Roberts shows there have been six stages in the process she calls the “secularization of charity”:
First the majority of Christians were poor and shared what they had.
Second the Church glorified the poor and those who chose poverty.
Third the Church cared for the poor and included them in the community.
Fourth the Church and society began to discriminate between the deserving and undeserving poor.
Fifth the Church and society began to treat the poor as dangerous and poverty as a curse.
Sixth the Church and society came to see poverty and the poor as a problem to be fixed by a new form of charity that would be more objective and efficient. We must eliminate poverty altogether.
The Bible does not idealize any particular lifestyle – we are what we are and we live together. Just as there is no celebration of the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” there is no “lifestyles of the poor and spiritual.” One is not better than the other. We do not eliminate the wealthy or the poor. We care for each other. The poor are to have a place in our lives – and not just pity or a hand out. We are to be with the poor and they with us. The purpose of Scripture is to teach us how to live in a community together – not isolated individuals. Everything in our society works against that. Everything encourages enclaves – both rich and poor. Everything encourages separation and class distinctions. Individuals are autonomous and free but we have, in large part, lost the sense of a whole community.
There is a particular poverty of spirit that affects us in dealing with poverty and the poor.
There is an ironic anger and meanness of spirit among some who would like to diminish the rich in favor of the poor. Even the disciples corrected Jesus when the woman anointed him with the expensive balm and they thought it could have been sold and the money given to the poor. They saw themselves as more compassionate than Jesus himself. He was being self-indulgent and insensitive in their estimation.
There is often a legalistic and guilt motivated spirit that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13. “If I give all I possess toy the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” I have been with people returning from a trip to the giant slums in Africa whose response is exactly this – sell everything and give it to the poor. It doesn’t work. Love takes a very long time and is not a knee jerk reaction.
There is a response motivated by the desire for recognition. You remember the story of the widow’s mite. Those offerings were not just for the maintenance of the Temple but they were offerings for the poor. The self-righteous donors wanted everyone to see and hear their gifts to the poor. We have some who give that way today. They want their gifts to be noticed. As Jesus says, they have their reward here but not in heaven.
There are those who begin in pity for the poor but actually end up oppressing them. Carol and I were part of a group years ago delivering food to families at Christmas. I had in my mind what poor people’s homes should be like. I was shocked when I saw color televisions, air conditioners, and other luxuries. My pity turned to disillusionment and even anger. That is what happens to idealists, isn’t it? We want to decide how much the poor should have to merit our help. We have a mental picture of what is appropriate and fitting.
But, gratefully, there is a particular blessing that is reserved for us when we are truly concerned for the poor.
Psalm 41:1: “Blessed are those who are concerned for the poor.”
Proverbs 14:21: “If you want to be happy, be kind to the poor.”
Proverbs 14:31: “Kindness shown to the poor is an act of worship.”
Proverbs 19:17: “When you give to the poor it is like lending to the Lord and the Lord will repay you.”
Proverbs 28:27: “Give to the poor and you will never be in need. If you close your eyes to the poor many will curse you.”
Deuteronomy 15: “Give generously to the poor and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to.”
The Lord reserves a particular kind of blessing and joy that cannot come in any other way.
But, there are stages of engagement. We don’t just rush out and fix the poor. We learn gradually.
At first, there is initial discomfort. There is the threat of the unknown – even the fear of physical harm because the poor are seen as dangerous. There are emotional hazards because we don’t know how we will react.
Next, there is often a superficial euphoria when we feel good about relieving our guilt or have a sense of getting closer to God as a result of being with the poor. That is a kind of “spiritual greed” that is dangerous. The poor become a means to an end for us. You may not have been following “Barbie Savior” on Instagram but it is a spoof on the rich who travel to Africa to be with the poor. On the website they have a mock interview with Barbie that goes like this:
An Interview Exclusive with Barbie Savior
Culture Stories: What made you want to volunteer in Africa?
Savior Barbie: Ever since I was little I was deeply fascinated with and moved by those living in the third world, specifically the country of Africa. Like I have stated, my true love for Africa came from watching The Lion King. From the first time watching it, I knew one day I would go to Africa. As I grew older I learned about the poverty and disparity that ravage the entire country. Even though I have no training whatsoever, I know that the answers to all the problems here lie within me.
CS: What were your first impressions upon arrival?
SB: The sights and smells were so overwhelming at first. Also, something that seriously caught me off guard was that the dirt here is red. IT’S ACTUALLY RED. As in, literally not black. I have been pondering this for weeks now. I have started some rough drafts of my auto-biography entitled, “The Dirt that Wasn’t Black.” I am hoping it will allow me a creative space to really explore this phenomenon. People here, even though they have no material objects at all, are literally happy every single second of every single day. All you have to do is look at their smiles and realize that they hold no sorrow or anxiety about anything in their lives at all. Only happiness and joy. I have never seen anyone in my life not be happy without Starbucks, and yet, this was one of the greatest epiphanies that I had. Happiness without red cups? It is possible. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it.
But then over time people who stick with it get to neutral – which is the beginning of a healthy attitude. The euphoria (and subsequent disappointment) wears off and they begin to see the poor as real individual personalities and not as objects. They are not always happy or grateful or easy or easily satisfied. They are, in short, like you and me. But when you get past the artificial euphoria you drop your interest in “poverty porn” with pictures of starving children and poverty is no longer an issue to be fixed with strategic initiatives. These are real people.
Then we begin to learn from the poor. We are no longer feeding off them emotionally but we have become the ones who receive. We are no longer, essentially, stealing from them to feed our own needs. We are not fixing them. We are there to receive and to give.
Finally, there comes what God intended all along – a sense of community in which we both belong. We do not take advantage of them and they do not manipulate us. We do not decide what is best for them and they do not play our charity games. We begin to trust each other and, most important, begin to welcome each other in our lives together without trying to remake each other. You know the root word for philanthropy is “philos” and it means finding something in common with another person. So much of philanthropy is built on just the opposite. We see people so different from us and we make gifts across that barrier but never try to find something we have in common. We pity them but we do not respect them. We want to fix them but not truly find something we have in common. When we have God’s perspective we do.
So, this week, I want us to think about the poor in our lives. Not just the materially poor. Look again at what Micah says in the first verses of this chapter. The poor are those who have no power because the power is in the hands of those who are defrauding them. I believe power can also be used in righteous ways – and all of us have power in this community. All of us can use that power to assist those who are at the mercy of those who stay awake all night long planning their schemes to take advantage of others.
For instance, a church in Garland,Texas decided they would work to eliminate payday lenders in their community. They showed up at a city council meeting where a vote was being taken and, up to that point, there had been very little opposition. The lenders had made very generous campaign contributions. But this time, 50 church members spoke against the lenders and they were successful in getting stronger regulations. Since then, about a third of the lenders have closed their businesses.
What can you do this week to use your power in the lives of widows, orphans, the fatherless, those who have lost their jobs, their insurance, their livelihoods? Again, it is not just making financial gifts but using what God has given you in influence, connections, relationships and knowledge to come to the aid of people. You will not solve poverty. You will not fix the poor. You will not be a hero but you will be blessed by God.
“Kindness shown to the poor is an act of worship.”