Summary: Rearranging Micah 6 shows us that Micah had characterized the religiosity of Judah in ways that are comparable to our religiosity. But justice, compassion, and the humble walk are much more than we expected, and are our responses to grace.
Takoma Park Baptist Church, Washington, DC August 24, 1986
Several years ago I went back to school for work on a graduate degree. Although I had been around schools and colleges and students all of my life, this was the first time in about a dozen years or so that I had actually enrolled in a course at a university. And, as they say, times had changed. I was not quite prepared for what I heard from the students, though, as I say, students had been my life's blood for some while. But still I had not seen them in the classroom itself.
“How many pages will we be required to read?” “How much of this book will we be responsible for?" "What will the final exam cover?" Mind you, this was the first day of class, and already somebody was wondering what would be on the final exam some three months down the line. “Are you going to require us to write papers? If so, how many papers and how many pages in each one?" Again, all this before the professor had even begun to describe the course and its objectives. I think the clincher, for me, was the question, uttered in complete disregard of the teacher's feelings, "Will you count off if we don't come to class?"
Well, times had indeed changed. Back in the late Middle Ages when I was a younger student we sat in class meekly and just took whatever was dished out. If there was a lot of work to do, well, that's the breaks. I'm not saying we liked it or we appreciated it, but we just assumed that teachers could require whatever they wanted to require, and most of us never even imagined for a moment that we could bargain or argue the price to be paid in blood, sweat, tears, and midnight oil. We just paid it; whatever the requirement was, we paid it.
But you know we are now in a consumer conscious age. Even students are consumer conscious. Are we getting what we paid for? How much is it going to cost us, in dollars and in work, to get these three credit hours? Tell me what you require and I will decide whether I want to pay out that much, and if I can, I'll whittle it down and do it for less. We do not, absolutely do not, want to pay the wrong price. Not for anything. We want bargains. We want to have without too much give, and we are not very interested in meeting steep requirements. For anything we receive, we do want to pay just as little as possible.
And where salvation is concerned, where our relationship to God is concerned, we are no different. If salvation can be obtained at little or no cost, well, that sounds good. If I can get a discount ticket to heaven, if by coming to church with some regularity I can get a frequent flyer’s discount ticket to salvation, well, that sounds just fine, doesn’t it? And of course there is much in our religious tradition that supports that expectation. There is much that we have said over the years that supports the hope that in fact we can get by without many requirements.
For example, haven't we said that salvation is free? One of our hymns says something about "Salvation full and free." One of the Scripture texts we use a lot says that we are to come and buy what God has to give without money and without price. Or again, we have learned that salvation comes with faith and not with works, that there is no way you can earn salvation. And so we have come to depend heavily on the idea of grace: grace, unmerited favor, the idea that God’s forgiveness is full and free. Salvation is the free gift of God, given as the outpouring of His grace. Isn't that right? Isn't that what we believe?
And so if salvation is free, I guess that means there is no price to be paid at all, right? If salvation is the outpouring of the sheer grace of God, then all we have to do is take it, no requirements, no demands, no expectations, right? If our relationship to God is not dependent on what we can pay or what we can do or on how many good deeds we can accumulate, well then, it's all grace and there are no requirements in this course, right, professor?
Wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong! Our relationship to God is not a matter of grace versus requirements. Our relationship to God, our salvation, is not a matter of either or, either He gives it to us or we pay for it, we work for it. No, our relationship to God is one in which His gracious and loving gifts to us demand, require a response -- but our trouble is that we have misunderstood what the response is. We have misunderstood what the gracious and loving acts of God require of us, and either we think He requires nothing at all, or else we think we can buy him off too cheaply, we think we can get by on a shoestring. Bargain basement salvation, discount relationships.