Number 131 of the Rite of Penance, gives us something of a Jekyll-and-Hyde reading. The first six verses are one of the most powerful laments in the Old Testament. The prophet Micah has really hit bottom, hasn’t he? Everyone is under suspicion: political leaders, friends, wives and children.
The faithful are gone from the earth,
among (people) the upright are no more!
They all lie in wait to shed blood,
each one ensnares the other.
Their hands succeed at evil;
the prince makes demands,
The judge is had for a price,
the great man speaks as he pleases,
The best of them is like a brier,
the most upright like a thorn hedge.
The day announced by your watch!
your punishment has come;
now is the time of your confusion.
Put no trust in a friend,
have no confidence in a companion;
Against her who lies in your bosom
guard the portals of your mouth.
For the son dishonors his father,
the daughter rises up against her mother,
The daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law
and a (person’s) enemies are those of (their) household.
But as for me, I will look to the Lord,
I will put my trust in God my savior;
my God will hear me!
A long litany of mistrust is punctuated twice. A warning at verse 4cde: punishment and confusion. The prophet concludes his litany with an acclamation of trust. Micah looks to God–and no other.
We might ask why this litany is included. Is it an examination of conscience, and are we to see ourselves among corrupt leaders and unfaithful family members? Are ordinary sins so gross and exaggerated? Or is it more likely we see ourselves, with Micah, as victims beset by people who don’t care, don’t understand, and don’t love us? My own sense is that this passage has a broader footprint. Didn’t the Lord allude to verse 6 in his warning of divisions in the household?
The Saturday of the second week of Lent has a commonality with the Reconciliation Lectionary, namely the following three verses, which are appended to the ones above:
Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt
and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance;
Who does not persist in anger forever,
but delights rather in clemency,
And will again have compassion on us,
treading underfoot our guilt?
You will cast into the depths of the sea all our sins;
You will show faithfulness to Jacob,
and grace to Abraham,
As you have sworn to our fathers
from days of old.
When I work with people preparing liturgy–engaged couples, mourners, or youth–I observe that we can take one of three approaches. We can find Scripture that is suggestive of a person, perhaps like the worthy wife of Proverbs 31 (a wedding selection) or the enthusiastic Zacchaeus (Rite of Penance 194).
We can also engage a text that describes God. And this is what we have in Micah 7:18-20, the last three verses of this prophetic book. This short passage, placed in context of a well-celebrated reconciliation, is as compassionate and tender as the previous verses are harsh and skeptical. Perhaps God has reason to be harsh and skeptical of many of his believers. We are the sons and daughters who stray, who betray the principles and honor of the Christian household.
But we have a God who not only forgives us, but who actually “delights” in showing us mercy. What a concept! As enthusiastically as we might hold grudges against a leader, a neighbor, or even the one who shares our marital bed, God feels the same way about forgiving us.
On second thought, perhaps that litany of verses 2-7 is needed. It places raw human evil in perspective. Perhaps it raises a hint of guilt in us. Perhaps it raises more. However much we bring to the Lord in the Sacrament of Penance, we will encounter a God who will like nothing more than to take the grossest of our sins and toss it into the ocean depths.