The Politics of Small Beginnings—Micah 5:2-4; 6:6-8 (Amy Allen)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

Micah’s message reminds us of the importance of small beginnings and the potential of the things that can start from them. Alongside this, he teaches us of the necessity of the actions whereby we live the difference that God desires to create in the world.

2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labour has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord,
in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;

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 tens of 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 mortal, 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?

When I teach this text with my Sunday School class (a group of 3-6 year olds), I emphasize the first half of Micah 5:2: “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah…” The children love the idea that Bethlehem was a “little” city. I point it out for them on a map. I show them where Judah was on the globe. I tell them, “Of all the places in the WHOLE WORLD, God chose to send the Messiah to the tiny little town of Bethlehem.”[1] The point is to help them to see that God does great things from small beginnings—a message particularly pertinent to young children in this age group.

However, when I think about what message this text has for adults, I wonder if it doesn’t need to start with that same beginning. As an advocate for social justice, I’m tempted to want to start somewhere else—at the end of 6:8, with the prophet’s famous words: “He has told you, O mortal, 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?” I’m tempted to pull out examples of modern day prophets who have done just that—people like Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Walter Rauschenbusch, Mother Teresa, and so many others. Indeed, the lives of these activists have come to embody Micah’s message in a “big” way.

Yet, the trouble with starting with these examples—the trouble with starting with God’s requirements at all—is that we are prone to forget that God started in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; Lk 2:1-7). In fact, long before God started in Bethlehem, God started in a garden with a lump of clay (Gen. 2:4-9). There is no denying that God does great and powerful things. But the message of Micah is that we shouldn’t expect those great and powerful things to come from thrones and high places. Indeed, the Jewish messianic tradition continued here in Micah’s fifth chapter recognizes precisely that.

James Limburg writes, “As king after king took the throne and did not measure up to these extravagant expectations [to rule with righteousness and justice and bring peace, cf. Ps 72:1-3, 7], the portrayal of the ideal king was pushed into the future.”[2] The messianic expectation thus shifted over time, from a king who would bring righteousness in the present generation, to a future expectation of a king who would be different from all the other kings—who would come from small beginnings—from Bethlehem (or, as Isaiah prophesies, a new David, Isa. 11:1). In other words, a king who would break entirely with the current political order in order to correct it.

And so, the danger of beginning and ending with Micah 6:8 is that we miss the prophet’s vision of these beginnings. We forget that the Messiah was born in Bethlehem—or, at least, that Bethlehem was nothing but a tiny speck on the map. We forget that many of the greatest social activists of our time have come from humble beginnings. And we forget that we don’t need to be published in the history books to make a difference.

The portion of Micah 6 in our reading today isn’t actually a prophecy. It’s a dialogue; many see in it a liturgy. It begins with a question, “With what shall I come before the Lord?” (6:6) and ends with an answer, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good…” (6:8). And what is good is not anything, as the question implies, that the worshipper has to offer. Instead, what the Lord requires of the worshipper—what the Lord requires of us—is action: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).

One of the biggest mistakes that Christians make when teaching small children is that we assume they are humble. So, when Jesus instructs his disciples to receive God’s Kingdom “as a little child” (Lk 18:15-17), we assume that God wants us to adopt an attitude of humility—to efface ourselves and acknowledge our own unworthiness. In this sort of humility (centuries before Jesus made this comparison) the worshipper in Micah 6 asks,

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 tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’

Humility strikes a human chord. It’s a nice way to approach worship and faithfulness, without really having to do a whole lot.

But, in truth, if you’ve ever spent much time with a little child, you’ll realize they aren’t humble in the least (well, mine aren’t). Particularly before the age of 6 or 7 or so, when they become interested in the social interactions of the world around them, they can be some of the most self-interested little people you’ve ever met. They are rarely interested in what they can give; they are far more interested in what might be given to them. And when my three-year-old bows, it is for applause at the end of a performance she has demanded the rest of the family watch, not out of reverence and respect. Children, of course, know reverence and they are capable of concern for others, it just isn’t their primary concern. After all, they are little, and if they don’t look out for themselves—if a baby doesn’t cry when she’s hungry—then there can be dire consequences.

So Micah tells us to cry. To scream out loud for justice; better yet, to actually work to fix the things that are wrong in our world. Micah calls us to love as God loves—with righteousness, or better translated, steadfastness; to walk humbly (in fact, again, the word “humbly” might be better translated as something else—“carefully” or “wisely”, in which case, maybe applying this term to the self-preservation behaviors of infants and small children begins to make a little bit more sense!). In short, the response to our question of “What?” is the definitive answer, “It’s not what God wants, but who. God wants YOU!”

God wants us, not just to lament the injustices and tragedies in the world; not just to humbly repent of our transgressions and complicities in them, but to act to make a difference. The Hebrew word for ethics is “halakah”, which means “walking.” Justice isn’t about knowing the difference between right and wrong, it’s about living the difference in our daily lives. This is part of why not everyone believed or yet believes that Jesus was the Messiah—he didn’t bring about the great political changes here on earth that his fellow Israelites expected the Messiah should. But he did do something different—he called a group of people (both great and small) to follow him. To walk the path of justice and peace, even if it seems a long one. To live, even from our little tribes and places in the world, the great mission that the one God of Israel and of Christianity calls us to live:

8 He has told you, O mortal, 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?

It’s election season and there are plenty of critiques and praises of “big” politicians on our television and radios. It’s easy to become cynical. To lament the passing of “throne” after “throne” with no sign of the Messiah in sight. Instead, Micah reminds us to look for our Messiah not in a palace or governor’s mansion, but in the tiny town of Bethlehem. Christians believe we found him there in a manger. And then, more importantly, to act with our Messiah (whether we believe him to be Christ Jesus our Lord or still wait for his coming), as we walk to our places of worship, to the soup kitchen lines, equality rallies, and even the polls—living out our offering to God in a way that, little by little, brings justice to our small corners of the world.


[1] These are reflections that come out of my training as a catechist in the tradition of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a children’s religious education program originally developed by Sofia Cavaletti. See www.cgsusa.org for more information.

[2] James Limburg, Hosea—Micah (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988) 188.

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