What does God really want from us? 3000 years ago, the Israelites wanted to know. The Assyrians had overrun their country. The people were wracked by war and oppression. To make sense of the hardship and suffering, they asked what we humans often ask in such times–what are we supposed to do? What does God want from us?
Did God want animal sacrifice–new born calves or thousands of rams? Would sacrificing their first-born children do the trick? What did God really want?
The (minor) prophet Micah answered his people with words that echo through the ages:
God has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God?
President Theodore Roosevelt called it “The Micah Mandate.” “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.” In this 8th c. prophet’s words, Roosevelt heard God’s call in his life and the life of this nation. For Roosevelt, the individual soul and the country heart both needed a sense of justice that is tempered by mercy and mercy that is strengthened by a commitment to justice. Moreover, Roosevelt knew that neither the individual nor the country is the center of the universe nor the seat of all wisdom. God is.
Like the other Hebrew Prophets, Micah didn’t go into great detail as to how to live out the commitment to justice and mercy. That is for each generation, each nation, each individual to work out. Instead, as with Amos’ call to “let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” Micah’s words are a standard by which to measure our lives and the life of our church and our nation.
The Prophet’s words are echoed in those of Janusz Korczak, a Jewish educator and pediatrician in 1930’s Poland. Known for his humane approach to teaching, Korczak had his own radio show (before the Nazi occupation of Poland) in which he advocated for the rights of children. He also directed an orphanage for both Jewish and Gentile children. When the Nazis came to power, Korczak was offered sanctuary but continually refused it, choosing instead to stay with the orphans in his care. In 1942, Korczak and 190+ children were deported to Treblinka where all were put to death.
In one of his radio presentations, Korczak offered an understanding similar to that of the Prophet Micah’s, 3000 years before. “You lived,” Korczak affirmed,
. . . . how many fields did you plow,
How many loaves of bread did you bake,
How much seed did you sow,
How many trees did you plant,
How many bricks did you lay?
How many buttons did you sew,
How many patches, how many seams did you make,
To whom did you give your warmth,
Who would have stumbled but for your support,
Who did you show the way without demanding gratitude or prize,
What was your offering,
Whom did you serve?
What does God really want from us? Korczak’s answer was to give warmth, offer support, live a life of service–even to the end. For the 8th century Prophet Micah, it was to “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.” Micah’s Mandate shaped Janusz Korczak’s life, even as his world thundered with hatred and fear. Amidst the thunder of our time and our world, we need to hear Micah’s Mandate, too.