Friday, February 28, 2014

Getting Specific

Getting Specific
Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18; Mt. 5:38-48[1]
  Much of our faith falls in the category of what most people would call theoretical.  For example, How do you really prove God’s existence?  How do you explain the Trinity?  Who’s ever experienced the afterlife?  But there are other aspects of our faith that are quite specific indeed.  When our faith talks about how we’re to live, it gets down to specifics.  Like measuring the quality of our faith by how we treat the weakest members of society.  Or insisting that our words and our actions match.  Or defining the character of our hearts by the quality of our words and deeds.  When it comes to these kinds of themes, our faith is quite specific.  Maybe too specific for our comfort levels.
  Take our lesson from the Hebrew Bible for today.  If you read Leviticus 19:1-18, you’ll find all the Ten Commandments repeated there, except for the last one.[2]  But what’s really interesting is that the commands are more specific.  Instead of just saying “you shall not steal,” this chapter also says “you shall not deal falsely” (19:11), “you shall not defraud your neighbor” (19:13), and interestingly, “you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning” (19:13). In other words, outright theft isn’t the only kind of “stealing” that the command prohibits!  And when it comes to “you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain,” this chapter may step on some toes.  It says, “And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God” (19:12).  In other words, the dishonesty of the people of God influences the way others think about God’s character![3] Talk about getting specific!
  But this interesting chapter is also where Jesus got the “second greatest command,” “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).  We like that command.  It sounds nice.  But I’m not sure we’ll like it so well after we hear what loving your neighbor means when the Bible gets specific.[4]  Loving your neighbor means that “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest” (19:10). Rather, “you shall leave them for the poor and the alien” (19:11).  Rather than using all our material wealth for ourselves, we’re to reserve a portion to help those in need.
  Loving your neighbor also means that “You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind” (19:14).  Instead, they should be treated with dignity and given the respect due to all human beings.  Loving your neighbor means that “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people” (19:16).  The way of love insists that we not talk about others in a manner that diminishes their character. Beyond that, loving your neighbor means “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people” (19:18).  This Scripture gets quite specific about the kinds of actions that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” covers.[5]
  Again, we might be tempted to think that Jesus and the Apostles might give us a break when it comes to being so specific about the actions that loving your neighbor demands of us.  But I’m afraid that’s not the case.  In the context of Leviticus, it is very likely that “loving your neighbor” meant loving fellow Jewish persons.[6]  It didn’t apply to foreigners in general, except those who sought refuge among the Jewish people.  And so Jesus recites the command “you shall love your neighbor” along with its traditional counterpart, “and hate your enemy” (Mt. 5:43). 
  But Jesus won’t stand for that. When it comes to loving your neighbor, Jesus insists that it applies to everyone, everywhere.[7]  He says to “love your enemies” (5:44).  And when you do that, when you can see the person you’ve considered an “enemy” as a “neighbor,” then the whole structure of friend and enemy is dismantled.[8]  Instead of allies and foes, we’re simply left with human beings who are all children of God. And because they are all children of God, they all benefit from God’s love equally.  As Jesus put it, God gives the life-sustaining gifts of sun and rain to all equally (Mt. 5:45).  And if God takes such a generous approach, then those of us who claim to be people of faith can do no less.[9]
  I think that’s what Jesus meant when he called his disciples to “Be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48).  It doesn’t mean that we have to be as morally and ethically flawless as God is.  That’s impossible.  But what it does mean is that we are to be constantly striving to give the same generosity to others that we’ve received so freely from God.[10]  I think that’s what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Beginning with the Apostles, serious Christians throughout the ages have sought to discern what that means in terms of specifics.  And we continue to follow that commitment to getting specific when we try to live out the generosity we’ve received from God toward those around us.

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/23/2014 at First Presbyerian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Although the first, “You shall have no other gods before me,” is not mentioned specifically, it seems to me that it’s implied in the call, “I am the Lord your God.”
[3] Contrast Jacob Milgrom, A Continental Commentary: Leviticus, 227-28, where he argues that this identification should not be made, but rather the Holiness Code is simply focused on “lying oaths” here.
[4] Joel S. Kaminsky, “Loving One's (Israelite) Neighbor: Election And Commandment In Leviticus 19,” Interpretation 62 (Apr 2008): 125: In the context of the covenant relationship, “loving one's neighbor was not simply (and perhaps not even primarily) an affective state, but rather an obligation to act properly towards such an individual.”  Cf. Similarly, Milgrom, Leviticus, 234; and Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 59.
[5] Cf. Walter Kaiser, “The Book of Leviticus,” New Interpreters Bible, I:1136, where he says, “To be holy is ... to imitate God. To be holy is to roll up one’s sleeves and to join in with whatever God is doing in the world. That is why, in this great chapter on moral holiness, the emphasis falls on social justice.”
[6] Kaminsky, “Loving One's (Israelite) Neighbor,” 123-24. Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:804.  Unfortunately, he argues that this is also true of the “love of neighbor” in the New Testament. He says it applies to “the circle of the community of Jesus Christ gathered by the Holy Spirit.”  Even though he recognizes the fact that Jesus included “the enemy” in Mt. 5:44-45, he says, “Even here, however, there can be no question of any extension in principle of Christian love to a universal love of humanity.”  Contrast Milgrom, Leviticus, 226, where he asks, “Are we to infer that the Israelite is free to lay aside any of the ethical rules in dealing with him? Here is where abstract logical reasoning leads astray. The forgotten factor is that the H school probably had no contact with foreigners.”  In other words, the fact that “love for neighbor” was applied only to fellow Jewish persons resulted from the limited contact the circle that developed the “Holiness Code” in Leviticus (“the H school”) had with foreigners.  But he argues that making that a principle of ethics leads us “astray”!
[7] Cf. Glen H. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads Of The Sermon On The Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12),” Journal of Biblical Literature 122/2 (2003): 282.
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Ethics of Hope, 202: “We are not the enemies of our enemies; we are ‘the children of our Father in heaven’, ... . If we do not react to enmity with enmity, we creatively make it possible for our enemies to turn away from their enmity and to enter into the life we share.”  Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography, 175: “One should not become the enemy of one’s enemy, but should liberate him from his enmity.”
[9] Cf. W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 555-55.  Contrast Kaminsky, 128, where he distinguishes between "the perfectionist ethic found in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount" with "the much more realistic ethic found in the Levitical code" which "never commands one to love one's enemies, a rather unnatural act."
[10] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 562, where they say, “To obey Jesus words ... is, therefore, to love utterly: no more can be asked.”  They further observe (p. 563) that “The motivation for being ‘perfect’ in love is grounded in the Father’s ‘perfect’ love, in his giving without measure.”  See further ibid., 560, where they suggest that what actually lies behind the “be perfect” of Mt. 5:48 is the “be holy” of Lev. 19:2.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

From the Heart

From the Heart
Deut. 30:15-20; Matt. 5:21-37[1]
  I’ve mentioned before that I inherited the Brehm family Bible from my Grandfather.  It was given to my Great-Great Grandfather William Brehm and his wife Elizabeth by her parents as a wedding gift.  I find it interesting that the inscription they chose for presenting a Bible to their children for their wedding was John 14:23: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”  But it’s also interesting that this Bible is a version of Martin Luther’s translation.  The fact is that Luther “edited” his version of the Bible, placing books like James and Hebrews at the end because he questioned whether they really fit with the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ.
  You see, Martin Luther originally had a hard time with God, because he believed God to be demanding, a God of justice but not mercy.  He tried every way he knew to live up to the demands of this severe God—even literally beating himself at times.  Finally he discovered that salvation was by grace alone, by faith alone.  Through the lens of that discovery, he began to view the New Testament as “gospel” and the demands of the Hebrew Bible as “law.”  For Luther, it was crucial that Jesus had come to set us free from the “law.”  And he “wrote” this perspective into his translation of the Bible by placing books he didn’t care for at the end.  But Luther wasn’t the first or the last to try to “edit” the Bible.  I think the real problem for us is that what they did on paper, we do in fact.  We simply omit those portions of the Bible from actual use.  I think this tends to apply especially to the “law” with its demands.[2]
  But that’s not really consistent with our lesson from Deuteronomy for today.  The basis for the commandments was the relationship God wanted with the people of Israel, called the “covenant.”  Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God called the people to commit themselves wholeheartedly to this relationship.[3]  The commandments were viewed as a gift that made it possible for the people to align their lives with God’s intention for their life.  In the context of this relationship, the purpose of the commandments was to define human life in terms of loving God.[4] Our lesson from Deuteronomy says it this way: “choosing life” means “obeying the commandments of the LORD your God … by loving the LORD your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments” (Deut. 30:16).  It means “loving the LORD your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Deut. 30:20).[5]
  Some might object that in the “Old Testament” people had to earn their salvation through obedience, while we’ve been set free from all that by Jesus Christ.  Not only does that not do justice to what we’ve heard from the Hebrew Bible today, it also doesn’t accurately reflect our Gospel lesson.  In this section of the Sermon on the Mount,  Jesus’ approach to the commandments is not to set them aside, but to make them a central part of what it means “hold fast” to God![6]  For him it means that we not only don’t kill one another, we also avoid hatred and anger.  Instead we practice reconciliation in our relationships.[7]  For him keeping the commands means that we not only avoid promiscuity, we also relate to others with pure hearts.[8]  For him, obeying God means that we avoid all the ways people use to circumvent the truth and practice simple, straightforward honesty.[9]  In other words, for Jesus, obeying God is not just a matter of what we do, it’s something that comes from the heart.[10]
  All this may sound very confusing.  I think many Christians over the ages have been confused about what they should do with the Hebrew Bible, especially the Law and its commandments.  Our lessons for today, like many other Scriptures, teach us that the purpose for the commandments has always been to call people like you and me into a relationship with God.  It is a special kind of relationship, one defined by sincere love and trust, and by obedience that comes from the heart.  That’s right--all the “thou shalt not’s” and the demands that go beyond the way everybody else lives have always been about our relationship with God!  God has worked through Prophets and Apostles and Saints and Sages throughout the centuries from Abraham to today with one goal in mind.  And that goal is to lead you and me into a relationship with him in which we respond to what he has done for us with love that comes from our hearts. When we have that kind of relationship that comes from the heart, we can do no less than make every effort to practice the way of life defined in Scripture as “walking in God’s ways.”[11]

[1] © Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/16/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 140: “we know that one is not saved by keeping the law and can think of no other reason why one should try to do it.”
[3] Cf. Patrick Miller, Deuteronomy, 213 where he says that to live in covenant with God means “to commit oneself wholly to God and to God’s way.”
[4] Cf. Miller, Deuteronomy, 113: “The one who keeps covenant expects Israel to keep the covenant commandments; the one who loves Israel expects this people to love wholeheartedly in return.”
[5] John Shelby Spong, Living Commandments, 14, 15, says that it is through the Ten Commandments that we find “the fullness of life, the depth of love, and the meaning of our own humanity.”  Cf. also James L. Mays, Psalms, 99.
[6] Cf. J. Clinton McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible, IV:1175, where he compares what Jesus says here with Psalm 119. He says, “Jesus ... sought to extend the torah to represent God’s sovereign claim upon all of human life (see Matt 5:21-48).”  Cf. Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, 51: “What Jesus teaches brings to articulation the ultimate purpose of God for his people expressed in Torah.”  Contrast W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 508-9, where they insist that these verses do not “offer us Jesus’ interpretation of the law,” because although “the Torah supplies him with a point of departure,” his demands surpass the Torah.  Therefore, for Jesus, “strict obedience to the commandments of the Torah is not enough” because “obedience to rules, even to the Torah, does not automatically produce the spirit that Jesus requires of those who follow him,” i.e., love. I’m not sure Davies and Allison are actually saying anything different from others on this, they’re just saying it more emphatically.
[7] Cf. Glen H. Stassen, “The Fourteen Triads Of The Sermon On The Mount (Matthew 5:21-7:12),” Journal of Biblical Literature 122/2 (2003):272: “To avoid ever being angry would be an impossible ideal, but to go and be reconciled with a brother or sister is the way of deliverance from anger.”
[8] Cf. Stassen, “Fourteen Triads,” 275, where he observes, “Of course, literally getting rid of the right eye or right hand would not prevent what causes the sin.”  Cf. also Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 524.
[9] Cf. Stassen, “Fourteen Triads,” 278: “The way of deliverance from the deceit and distrust of oaths that are not real, and from fine distinctions designed as escape clauses, is the transforming initiative of straightforwardly telling the truth.”  Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 533: “Jesus enjoins ... invariable honesty and integrity” which “makes the oath superfluous.”
[10] John Calvin,  Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles 175–176: “the law, which is spiritual, does not command only external works, but enjoins this especially, to love God with the whole heart.”  This is consistent with Jesus’ approach to the law in the Sermon on the Mount.
[11] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 2.2:697: the demands of the Sermon on the Mount “show very plainly that the impact which is made on man by the mercy of God revealed and operative in Jesus Christ is something radical and revolutionary.”

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Light for the World

Light for the World
Matt. 5:13-20; Isa. 58:1-9[1]
  There is an important balance that can be found throughout the testimony of Scripture.  Although it’s foundational for truly grasping the message of the Bible, I’m afraid that far too many have missed this balance.  It’s the balance between grace and demand.  In the Bible, God’s grace, God’s gift of life and love and mercy, always precede any demands.  This is true from the Ten Commandments to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to the Apostles’ teachings.  Grace always precedes demand.  The point is that we who have experienced amazing grace in the gifts of love and new life and community are to reflect that grace in the way we relate to others.[2]
  This balance is crucial for our understanding of Scripture because when we downplay one side or the other, it skews our vision.  When we overlook the fact that all the commands of the Bible are grounded in the grace and love and mercy that God has so freely given us all, we turn those commands into rigid rules that are applied often in a strict and severe way.  We can think of various communities in our world who do just that: enforce a ruthless set of demands and expel those who don’t live up to them.  I don’t think that’s a very accurate portrait of the God who has lovingly called the human family into relationship throughout the centuries.
  The opposite is also true: it’s all too easy to focus only on grace and ignore the very real demands that are found not just in the Hebrew Bible, but also throughout the New Testament.  When we make that mistake, we miss the whole point of God’s outpouring of grace in the first place: to shape us into the people we we’re meant to be from the beginning.  In the words of the pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, when we ignore the demand for heartfelt obedience to God’s commands, we turn all that God has done for us into “cheap grace.”[3]  I believe we can also think of those voices in our world who expect a loving God to be tolerant of any and all kinds of behavior, regardless of the consequences to others or ourselves! Again, I don’t think that’s a very accurate portrait of the God whose love has always called the human family to practice justice, compassion, and mercy toward one another.
  We see this balance reflected when we look at our Gospel lesson for today in light of its context.  Jesus opens the “Sermon on the Mount” with the beatitudes, which are not primarily instructions for living.  The beatitudes are a declaration of the grace that God is pouring out on all people through Jesus Christ.[4]  They are a more detailed announcement of the heart of Jesus’ message: the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  If you wonder what the kingdom of heaven is about, look at the beatitudes.  It means blessing and peace and comfort for those who have been trampled on in our world!  Right from the start of this “sermon,” Jesus makes an elaborate statement about the grace that God gives to all people who will open their hearts to it.
  Immediately following our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus begins to teach his disciples what it means that he was calling them to a righteousness that surpassed even that of the great examples of piety in their day.  But whereas the Jewish religious leaders had sought to fulfill God’s demands by specifying the precise actions one could or could not do, Jesus called his disciples to obey the commands from the heart.[5]  That would mean not only not killing, it also meant avoiding the anger and hatred that leads us to devalue the life of another enough to justify killing.  In other words, Jesus didn’t make it easier to obey God’s commands, he made it harder.[6]  He went back to the original intention of the commands--to produce a people who would practice God’s justice, compassion, and mercy toward one another.  And they would do so not for fear of punishment or in order to gain some reward.  They would practice this kind of life because God’s grace had changed their hearts, and they could do no less.
  It seems to me, that’s what Jesus had in mind when he told his disciples that they were light for the world.[7]  They were to demonstrate the difference God’s grace makes in real human life on a daily basis.[8]  And if you’re wondering what that means in terms of specifics, our lesson from Isaiah 58:6-7 puts it this way: what God desires of us is “to loose the bonds of injustice, ... to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke ... to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them.”  It sounds very reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching in Matt. 25:35-36, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”[9]  When we live our lives in this way, demonstrating the difference God’s grace makes in real human life on a daily basis, we are living as light for the world.[10]

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/9/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Perry Yoder, “Liberated by Law,” Sojourners Magazine, September-October 1999  (Vol. 28, No. 5), 46; Patrick D. Miller, Deuteronomy, 113; O. Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics II:363.
[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works 4, 43.  For him, “cheap grace” meant that God’s grace “justifies sin” without making any difference in the sinner, so that “everything can stay in its old ways.”He continues (p. 44) by saying that “cheap grace” means that “there is no difference between Christian life and worldly life,” and “the Christian need not follow Christ” because this “cheap grace” is the basis for their comfort and security.  This translation is by far better than the common one, entitled, The Cost of Discipleship, which in my opinion suffers from a great many translation errors when compared with Bonhoeffer’s original Nachfolge.
[4] cf. W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 466: “by opening the sermon on the mount [the beatitudes] place it within the context of grace.”
[5] Cf. Hans Küng, The Christian Challenge: A Shortened Version of On Being a Christian, 140-41: Jesus made it clear that God “demands not only external acts which can be observed and controlled, but also internal responses which cannot be controlled or checked. He demand’s man’s heart.”
[6] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 482: “what Jesus requires of his followers surpasses what has traditionally been regarded ... as the requirements of the Torah.”
[7] It is important to recognize that Jesus speaks of being light for the “world” not just for the few: Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 125-26; Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4.2:804-805.
[8] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 499, where they define this in terms of “right intention, right word, right deed.”
[9] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 127: “it is not only love that is demanded. It is in the first place faith, the faith, namely, that the least of the brethren are waiting in Christ’s stead for the deeds of the just man. It is not that the wretched are the object of Christian love or the fulfilment of a moral duty; they are the latent presence of the coming Saviour and Judge in the world.”
[10] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 475, where they quote St. John of the Cross: “the followers of Jesus are to be windows through which the divine light enters the world”

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Finding Life

Finding Life
Micah 6:1-8[1]
  We as a people are, I think, tragically confused about how to find life.  I think we’re not even sure what we’re looking for in life.  But whatever it is we’re looking for--happiness, fulfillment, success, or just pleasure--it seems to me that we’re looking for it in all the wrong places.  And we look to all the wrong people as our examples of what it means to be happy.  The rich and famous and beautiful have become the inspiration for many when it comes to how to find the life they’re looking for.  And yet the path many of them have shown us is that the way to be happy is to do whatever we please.  The sad truth is that when we turn freedom into a license to do as we please, the end result, time after time, is that people get hurt.
  But the lessons of prophets and sages of all the ages is that we do not find life by indulging the will to do whatever we please.  We find life by following the truth of what is right and good and beneficial to us all.  I believe our lesson from the prophet Micah points us in this direction:  “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?” (Mic. 6:8). I realize this flies in the face of the “freedom” we think we have to do as we please.  It talks about what God “requires” of us.  It sounds like the way to bondage, repression, and restriction, rather than happiness in life.
  But if we were to conclude that, we would be missing one of the central points of the whole Bible.  From Moses to Micah to Matthew, the witness of the Scriptures is that we find life through our obedience to God’s principles.[2]  We find happiness and true freedom through the “truth that sets us free.” And an integral part of that truth is that we find fulfillment in life when we do what is right, when we treat others with love and kindness, and when we recognize that we are not the masters of our own fate.[3]  But the converse is also true: when we live for ourselves and our own selfish desires, when we treat others as a means to attain only what we want from them, and when we place ourselves on the throne of our lives, we become slaves to our selfishness, and lose the chance for true freedom and happiness in life.
  Essentially, this verse from the book of the prophet Micah is an eloquent summary of the commands of God throughout the Bible.[4] There are others: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), which serves as the conclusion to an alternate version of the Ten Commandments in Leviticus.  The prophet Isaiah said this: “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isa. 1:16-17). Our Psalm for today says this way of life is demonstrated in “Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart” (Ps. 15:2).[5]  And, of course Jesus said it this way: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). 
  In all of these summaries, the same premise serves as the foundation for a way of life that is very different from the one many of our cultural icons hold out for us.  It is the premise that we find true freedom when we surrender our will to the will of God.[6]  It is the premise that we find true happiness when we give up the folly of “going our own way” and we follow the truths that have been handed down to us for generations (which happen to be many of the same truths that have been handed down for generations in the other major religions).  It is the premise that we find what we’re looking for in life when we give ourselves away in kindness and compassion for others, rather than trying to take as much as we can get for ourselves.[7]
  Ironically, this is the essence of the “Law” in the Bible.  The Torah, which basically means teaching or truth, is not about preventing us from doing all the things in life that make us happy.  A quick survey of some of the commandments makes it obvious that they only prohibit what hurts us and what keeps us from finding life.  And so it is that throughout the Bible, the heart of what the prophets and apostles have taught us is that it is through obeying these spiritual principles that we find the true freedom and true happiness we’re looking for in life.[8]
  That’s part of what Jesus’ message was in the Beatitudes.[9] When we look at them, we see a reflection of a way of living that is different from the self-gratification of our culture.  He talks about the happiness of those who are meek, while we give our praise to the proud.  He talks about the happiness of those who are hungry for God’s justice, while we  indulge in obsessive pleasure-seeking.  He talks about the happiness of those who are pure in heart, while we seem to think that purity is a quaint and obsolete notion.  If you’re looking to Jesus for an excuse to ignore the truths that have been handed down to us in the Bible, you’re looking in the wrong place.[10]
  It seems to me that when the advocates of doing what you please run into criticism, they inevitably turn to Jesus to defend themselves.  Or at least something like his principles of tolerance.  But those principles are part of a whole way of life.  The tolerance that Jesus and other prophets and teachers advocated is a part of a way of life that is very different from self-indulgence.  The kind of life that Jesus advocated, along with many prophets before him and after him, is a way of life that finds happiness and freedom and life through “Seeing that justice is done, letting mercy be your first concern, and humbly obeying your God” (Mic. 6:8, CEV).[11]  It seems to me, if we want to find life, that’s the path we need to be taking.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 2/2/2014 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] It is essential to recognize that in this passage from Micah, as well as in all the summaries of God’s “requirements,” God’s gracious deeds of salvation always precede the demand placed upon those who benefit from them.  Cf. on Micah, Hans Walter Wolff,  A Continental Commentary: Micah, 183; and Daniel J. Simundson, “The Book of Micah,” New Interpreters Bible VII:582.
[3] Cf. Simundson, “The Book of Micah,” 582-83, where he points out that “what the Lord requires” is both easier and harder than the questions in Mic. 6:6-7 imply.  He says, “It is easier because there is nothing that we need to do (or are able to do) to make ourselves sufficiently worthy to approach God.  It is harder, because what God expects of us is a dedication of our whole lives, not just outward and occasional acts of piety.”
[4] Cf. Wolff,  Micah, 183; cf. also James Limburg, Hosea-Micah, 192, where he says the answer to the question “What does the Lord require” is “He has showed you ... what is good”; in this “one thinks of the whole tradition of the commandments and also the wisdom directives, long known in Israel.”  Cf. similarly, Simundson, “Book of Micah,” 583.
[5] Psalm 15:3 elaborates more specifically what it means to “do what is right, and to speak the truth from the heart”: they “do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors.” Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 84, says that the character traits listed there “belong to the established tradition of right and wrong in Israel’s religion” and that they are “cases of conduct that effect the well-being or shalom of the various levels of the community.”  Cf. also H.-J. Kraus, Psalms 1-59, 228-29.
[6] James L. Mays, Micah, p. 136, suggests that the point of this passage is that it is not a “what” but a “whom” that the Lord wants.  He says, “It’s you, not something, that God wants. 
[7] Cf. James Limburg, Hosea-Micah, 193, where he says the call to “walk” is “similar to the call of Jesus, whose most characteristic invitation was not ‘believe’ but rather ‘walk’ or ‘Follow me.’”  He also says that Micah 6:8 “describes a step-by-step living with God and living for others, acting as advocate for the powerless and showing care for those who are hurting and need help.”
[8] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:566: “it is the grace of God which expresses itself in” the claims made upon us in the commandments. “It is always God in Jesus Christ who, as He puts these claims, wills to have us for Himself, to call us to Himself.”
[9] While Jesus was primarily proclaiming the good news of what God was doing through him to bring the peace and justice and freedom of the Kingdom, not teaching us a list of character traits that we are called to embody, I think we can also see the way of life summarized by the prophets and apostles reflected here.  Cf. W. D. Davies and D. C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 440, where they point out that while the primary function of the beatitudes is not ethical, “it would be foolish to deny the imperatives implicit” in the beatitudes.
[10] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:567: Jesus “Himself is the claim which God has made and continually makes upon all men.”
[11] Cf. Simundson, “Book of Micah,” 583, where he says, “If one is in right relationship with God (walking humbly with God), one need not worry overmuch about what to do to win approval or forgiveness for sinful indiscretions.  If one is not right with God, no liturgical ceremony, sacrifice, act of generosity, or rigid adherence to theological absolutes will be sufficient.”