Maybe it all goes back to that day when I was a second-grader and Jack Myers soaped the cups. We had no running water in our one-room school building, so each day the teacher dispatched two students to walk to a neighboring farm. Their mission: carry back a large can of well water for us to drink. Back at the water cooler sat thirty or more cups, each one the property of a pupil. Mine was a blue agate tin with white flecks — a real beauty. One fateful day, following the afternoon recess, our teacher made a discovery that filled her with consternation. Someone had taken a bar of soap and coated the rim of several cups. We kids thought it was a good practical joke. It showed some imagination and a flair for the dramatic.
Our teacher saw it in a somewhat different light. She raged and stormed at us, demanding to know the perpetrator of the nefarious deed. You would have thought the unknown culprit had committed treason. No doubt that’s how she saw it, as a traitorous challenge to her sovereignty. She told us we would stay in our seats until the guilty one confessed. But no one confessed.
Dismissal time came …. and went. By this time, every one of us kids knew who had done it. A quick whisper, a telling gesture, passed the word that it had been Jack Myers, a third-grader brave beyond his years. We knew he had committed a grievous offense but we also had a secret admiration for anyone who could pull one over on the woman who tyrannized us all. We weren’t sayin’ nothin’.
It grew late. The shadows of the trees outside stretched across our desks in patterns we had never seen before. Some of the youngest began to sniffle. They wanted to go home; they were hungry. In desperation, our teacher issued a command: put your heads down on your desks, close your eyes, and raise your hand if you soaped the cups. It was almost like an altar call at church, only in reverse. The one who raised his hand was going to catch the very opposite of heaven! For a long time the only sound was the old Seth Thomas clock on the wall tick-tocking away the seconds.
Then at last we heard a voice. It belonged to Jack Myers’ older sister. “I didn’t see Jack soap the cups,” she said, “but he’s done it at home sometimes.” That was as good as a confession for the teacher. We were all released, except for Jack, of course. What punishment he received, we never knew. But ever since that time, I have had an illicit admiration for people, even guilty people, who hang tough in the face of tyranny.
There seems little doubt that the mother of Micah was a tyrant. And Micah caved in. With her authority acknowledged, Mama in this case saw no need to be ugly about it. She had demonstrated who was boss, so now she could be generous. Of the eleven hundred pieces of silver, she took two hundred to a silversmith, who made them into an image, which was then given to Micah. Thus Micah is rewarded for being a loyal son who lets Mama call the shots.
But Micah has one other character deficiency in addition to his lack of backbone. Micah is greedy. Somewhere he had heard that God enjoyed being fussed over by priests. So Micah builds a shrine at his house, fancies it up, and appoints one of his sons to be a priest.
Micah figures that God is pretty much like Mother. Flatter her, he has learned, tell her how great she is, and she gets generous. Why won’t the same thing work with God? If I want to get God on my side, Micah reasons, I had better cultivate the Almighty a little.
Of all the unlikely texts for a sermon on the subject of giving, the story of Micah in Judges 17 Judges 18 is one of the unlikeliest. It starts off with a bang. Let me read you the first two verses.
There was once a man named Micah from the hill country of Ephraim. He said to his mother, ‘You remember the eleven hundred pieces of silver which were taken from you, and how you called down a curse on the thief in my hearing? I have the money; I took it and now I will give it back to you.’ His mother said, ‘May the Lord bless you, my son’ (Judges 17:1-2 NEB).
I don’t know about you, but my first reaction to those words is: “You’ve got to be kidding! No mother in the world is going to act that way when she finds out her son is a thief.
It makes one wonder if this wasn’t the ancient Hebrew version of George Washington and the cherry tree. I remember hearing that story about the boyhood of our first president when I was a youngster.
“Father, I cannot tell a lie,” said George, the honest boy. “It was I who chopped down your tree with my little axe.”
And what did his father say? “Son, I wish you hadn’t chopped down that tree, fond of cherry pies as I am. But because you have been such an honest boy, I will not punish you.”
“And so,” concluded our teacher, “we learn from this story that it always pays to tell the truth.”
Well, I thought about that story for a little while, and I even fantasized how it might work at my home. I fancied myself announcing to my mother: “Mother dear, you know your lovely geraniums in the back yard? It wasn’t the neighbor’s dog that tore them up. I cannot tell a lie. I did it just because I felt like it.” Then I fantasized my mother’s response; “You what! (Pow) Don’t you ever (swat) touch my flowers (thump) again. And just wait till your father gets home!”
So much for the honesty-is-the-best-policy theory of child-parent relations. I have a hard time believing that Micah returned his mother’s money because he was moved by a sudden burst of virtue. It’s much more likely that he had been frightened by the curse she had invoked on the thief.
Back in that ancient time, a curse meant more than just a swear word or two. A curse carried such power that it could bring bad fortune upon the one who was cursed. Micah’s mother appears to have been a powerful woman, the kind of person you didn’t trifle with. The curse she pronounced on the one who had taken her silver must have been enough to make Micah’s toes curl. That’s why he brought the money back.
And right here I’ve got to say that the way he comes back to Mother with his tail between his legs lowers my estimate of him. That estimate wasn’t very high to begin with; I mean, it’s hard to admire a grown man with children who robs his own mother, but if he is going to rebel anyway, I would have preferred a full-fledged, out-and-out rebellion. None of this Mama-boy, “Gee-I’m-sorry” business. I probably shouldn’t feel this way; it would surely be more respectable to applaud Micah’s repentance; but somehow I just can’t bring myself to do it.
A great chance to do just that soon comes along in the form of a young traveler. He stops to visit in Micah’s house and lets it be known that he is a bona fide, ordained-by-the-bishop type priest, and a Levite to boot. Levites, it seems, were top-of-the- line priests. Micah wasn’t going to pass up this opportunity, you can bet. Read Judges 17:10-13.
Micah wasn’t the first one in history, nor the last, to think he could supplement his ventures with a little God insurance. Most of us, of course, are a bit more subtle about it. We usually don’t bargain with God directly. We’ve all heard stories about people trapped in a burning building or a wrecked car who promise God that if they get out alive, they will stop drinking or give a big donation to the church or become a minister. Sure enough, they escape and make good on their end of the bargain.
Well, sorry folks, but I don’t buy it. You simply can’t make a case from the Bible or anywhere else that God makes deals like that. Yahweh is not a deity who operates on the basis of you-scratch-my-back, Ill-scratch-yours. It is true that in Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, the Lord promised to be their God as long as they kept the divine law. But, in fact, the Israelites broke the commandments again and again. Nevertheless, God remained steadfast in love and justice.
Now most of us know well enough that we cannot manipulate God by flattery or bargains or whatever. We know it but that doesn’t stop us from trying it anyway. Though we may never verbalize it in a prayer or even bring it consciously to mind, we nevertheless engage in many subtle forms of bargaining. Faced with a decision, we opt for what we believe is the right thing to do because, after all, we ought to do the right thing, and because we trust God is watching and chalking up a good mark for us. It’s a mark we hope to cash in later, maybe to cancel out some of the things we do that aren’t so nice. “So maybe I did misrepresent things to my boss a bit,” we rationalize, “but yesterday I put in some extra work on my own time.”
So when the whole system breaks down, we are in danger of bitterness, even despair. Threatened by a serious illness, I start to think that God hasn’t kept His part of the bargain. “I’ve been one of the good guys,” I say to myself. “I’ve lived clean, haven’t smoked, worked hard, even gone to church and paid my pledge regularly. Why has God let me down?”
All this is only a slight variation on what Micah said: “Now I know that the Lord will make me prosper, because I have a Levite for a priest.” He couldn’t have been more wrong.
As a matter of fact, Micah’s fortunes took a turn for the worse soon after. A gang of toughs from the other side of the tracks comes by one day and is genuinely impressed by that big silver image Micah has. Naturally he is pleased by their raves about it, but he is also a little nervous because he catches a few of them fingering their brass knuckles with far-away looks in their eyes. He breathes a sigh of relief when they leave.
A few weeks later he looks out the front window and sees those same five men, backed up by a nasty looking mob of companions. He has a pretty good idea what they’ve come for. It’s for sure they don’t look like Jehovah’s Witnesses passing out tracts. The five of them march in and carry off Micah’s wonderful silver image, plus a bunch of other goodies. To add insult to injury, they tell the Levite priest he can come along if he wants, and he jumps at the chance.
By the time they have vanished over the hill, Micah gets his courage back and hastily calls a bunch of his neighbors to join him in a posse. Like most of us, Micah is more resourceful when he isn’t looking down the barrel of a sawed-off shotgun. Like us, he can think later of all kinds of things he might have said or could have done.
Eventually Micah and his neighbors catch up with the robbers. It takes a thief to catch a thief, after all. The Judges 18 records the confrontation. Try to picture it. There stands Micah, all red-faced and breathing heavily from his pursuit. He’s still pretty hot about the whole thing and gives the five crooks a piece of his mind. Finally he catches his breath and looks around. He had forgotten there were so many of them. And so big and ugly-looking too.
Of the five, one motions Micah over to the side. “Look, pal,” he says conspiratorially. “Do yourself a favor. Calm down, turn around and go home. Do you know how many throats this gang of butchers has slit? Do you see that knife hanging from Elimelech’s belt? Okay, how about if you give me a big smile, nod your head like you’re agreeing with me — that’s the way. All right now, shake my hand and tell your friends you just remembered you have a previous engagement.”
And Micah, though selfish and greedy, is nobody’s fool. He takes one last look at his two hundred silver pieces image and then heads for home. Is this crazy story really in the Bible? Yep; read it yourself in Judges. Did Micah learn his lesson? The Bible doesn’t say, but we can hope he did.
We can hope so because we hope the same thing for ourselves. We hope we too can learn that God can’t be bought off by a few mumbled apologies or by a prayer or two or even by an armload of good deeds. We hope so because deep down we know that nothing we can bring can ever be enough to save us. Only the grace of God can do that. Lucky for a thief like Micah, and lucky for us, God’s grace is free for the taking.
All this has some relevance to the subject of giving, specifically the kind of giving that Christians make in support of the church. Now there are some fundraisers who feel that you get people to give by any means possible. It’s okay to play on people’s fears and guilts, their need to be respectable. A little high pressure is okay too.
I don’t see it that way. It really is a remarkable thing, you know, that a church like ours runs solely on contributions. There are no government subsidies, no endowment funds. There is only an invitation to give. There are no hints that you should give to win God’s favor. What kind of God would it be who could be bought with a few extra dollars?
No, we are asked to give because we love Christ and His church, because we believe in and trust each other. We are asked to give in grateful response to God’s immeasurable, overflowing, unlimited love to us. Love so great that Jesus came. Love so rich that it gives and keeps on giving. Why do we give? Not because, like Micah, we want to get on God’s good side. The truth is we are already on God’s good side. It has nothing to do with us; it has everything to do with God. We give because we have been given much.

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