Does everyone need hope? The obvious answer is, "yes." But, hope is a funny thing. You don't need hope if you are satisfied with how things are now. In Revelation 3:16 God says He wants to spit out lukewarm people. God prefers us to be hot or cold. Does that mean that God wants to spit out people who don't need hope? Recall that last week God sent the worm that killed the plant that gave Jonah shade? Would God send "worms" into our life to put us in a posture where we needed hope? If so, what kind of hope does God offer? Let's dive into our study of the book of Micah and find out!
God’s Special People (Micah)
Commentary for the May 18, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“The Lord enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: ‘It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people and grinding the faces of the poor?’ declares the Lord, the Lord Almighty.” Isaiah 3:14-15, NIV
Justice, a concept that the prophet Micah is keenly concerned about, is something many modern Christians struggle with as well, especially in Western societies. Perhaps this is because so many advantages pertain to living in those cultures that we often assume a basic fairness or justice for all that may be more illusory than real. We may feel as in the picture that providing an equal foundation for all will take care of any questions of fairness. But a complicating flaw in that assumption could be assuming that all individuals are equal. Philosophically we might make a case for such an assumption but physical data would no doubt bring us fact-to-face with a more accurate reality.
Standardized achievement tests place us all on a bell curve according to our several levels of ability. Depending on what we are measuring we may find ourselves at different locations on the curve. This curve is also what is meant by grading on “the curve” for scholastic achievement. Such grading is a de facto statement that it is an invalid assumption everyone can possibly receive a perfect grade as it assumes a normal distribution of differing abilities to achieve such a score. This is based on decades of data derived from tests that measure an individual’s intelligence quotient or IQ. The data from those scores consistently conform to that bell curve distribution.[i]
Why does this matter to our sense of justice and fairness? Can it help us to see where we fall short in this area? Can it help us as we study Micah? Will he turn out to be a prophet only for ancient Israel, or are there significant social issues that place our own national security in jeopardy just like Israel and Judah? Are we like they unable to see because of our blindness to the true nature of justice? Does the simple picture of boys standing on boxes help to lift that veil?
When I was a student, a teacher would sometimes state at the beginning of the term that everyone starts with an “A” and it is up to the student to keep that grade. The teacher may be indicating that each student has the same set of tools available to them to achieve that grade. Each boy or girl has the same “box” to stand on. However, as in our picture above, that situation results in the taller child easily seeing over the fence, the middle child barely seeing over and the shorter child able to see nothing going on over the fence. Some might say, “That’s OK. That’s what we would expect from a normal distribution based on differing abilities.” But if they truly believe that then representing to each child that they begin with an “A” is disingenuous at best.
Sadly, this misrepresentation can often creep into our theology, even though it has no business being there. We see it manifested when we make statements like “That person is just lazy or unwilling to accomplish anything as they have had the same opportunities we all have had.” In other words, we are saying that they have had a box, also, so there is no excuse for them not achieving what we have achieved. In so doing, we stigmatize individuals into those who have many blessings and those who do not, with the foundation for those classes being those who deserve to receive them and those who do not.
Why is this problematic theologically? Perhaps it misrepresents the character of God. While we may judge the worth of others based on what they achieved in life, God often overlooks the worthiness of individuals when He sends His blessings.[ii] One gets the feeling that if he were confronted by an individual with a hand-printed cardboard sign asking for a handout, He would be less likely to ask himself whether or not the person might use the funds to get drunk or high than to say “Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God and rejoice.”[iii]
We often strain at theological minutiae as though such controversies were vital to defining the character of God. Then, just when we think we have our understanding perfected, God reveals Himself doing exactly the opposite from what we have struggled so hard to define. We see this with Rahab, the Canaanite harlot and Ruth, the Moabitess, both of whom should have been excluded from Israel.[iv] However, not only were they admitted into the Israelite fellowship, but both these women were included in the lineage that produced King David and ultimately the Messiah. Even more troubling to the one who feels they have God’s character nailed down is that these are not simply a few isolated incidents. One could go on with Tamar and Bathsheba as well as the blessings God heaped upon Jacob, “The Deceiver.” God is consistently more compassionate than our theology would give Him the right to be.
This perplexing history of ignoring the worthiness of people when He blesses them is a revelation regarding our own lack of compassion. Maybe we should be glad that His compassion exceeds our own. If we are honest with ourselves, we might admit that we have been blessed beyond our own worthiness as well.[v] If like we sometimes do, God questioned our worthiness for His blessings perhaps we would have been denied the ultimate blessing of salvation. Certainly we cannot make the claim that we deserve to be saved. That would likely cast a shadow on any idea that salvation is a gift. Yet, the Bible assures us that it is.[vi]
Once we come to understand our own unworthiness in the face of God’s tremendous compassion demonstrated on our behalf and on the behalf of others both within the Bible and without, we begin to gain understanding. It becomes clearer why simply giving everyone the same box to stand on is woefully inadequate. Compassion must become a factor in how we relate to others, if we are to bear in us the image of a God who is all about compassion.
Returning to the example of the teacher with the students, it is not enough to tell each student that they begin with an “A” and it is up to them to keep it, while giving each student an equal share of the teacher’s time and abilities. Compassion requires the teacher to determine what each student needs to keep that “A” and provide teaching time, resources, and whatever might be needed in proportion to the need to help that student maintain that “A.” Of course the student might reject such assistance, but the justice or fairness of such a compassionate teacher could not be called into question.
Possibly one might feel that a teacher is a good teacher if their students conform to the expected normal distribution when they receive their grades for the term. However, an argument might be made that a successful teaching paradigm is one that results in the majority achieving the success of an “A,” not because the standard was lowered but because the ability of the students was enhanced to the point of such a possibility.
When we take this into the realm of Christian experience, maybe we can understand the concern expressed by Micah, Isaiah and several other prophets about social justice. Could it be that instead of questioning the worthiness of the lost that we should be asking if their unworthiness is not merely a reflection of our own? Perhaps that is why they trouble us so, and we quickly avert our glance and go on our way. Instead we should treat them as we would like to be treated.[vii] We appreciate it when our unworthiness is overlooked and we are loved and treated with compassion. Maybe this would be appealing to them as well.
Like the overtly religious who passed by the injured man on the road, leaving him to the good Samaritan, do we fail to bring compassion to others, telling ourselves that someone else will deal with it. Do we, by our actions, tell God that it is OK if He speaks to the situation--just don’t do it through us? How frustrating might that be? How many of His good people would He have to bring to a situation before He found one that would willingly be a channel for His compassion to the undeserving? Thankfully, we had Someone who did that for us. He knew that we did not deserve the compassion He brought to this world, but He came anyway. Not only did we not deserve His compassion, but we murdered Him when He came. Yet, He remains compassionate toward us. In the face of such great love, can we still question the worthiness of someone else to receive it from us?[viii]
[i] “Mainstream Science on Intelligence,” Wall Street Journal, December 13, 1994
[ii] Matthew 5:45
[iii] Deuteronomy 14:26, NIV
[iv] Ibid., 20:16-18 and 23:3
[v] Romans 3:10
[vi] Ephesians 2:8
[vii] Luke 6:31
[viii] Matthew 18:23-35
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