Tuesday, October 23, 2007

More woe.

Again, a reading from the prophets in church. On November 4, I get to read Isaiah 1:10-20. Another go at woe before a cheerier Advent 'lesson' that I've been assigned to read in early December: the one about "and a little child shall lead them".

I'm writing again about my assigned passages from the Hebrew Bible because these words in Ecclesiasticus, Amos, and now Isaiah speak to us quite clearly and disconcertingly, if only we tune in.

First, it's injustice, arrogance, and wealth that will destroy the nation. Then it's the wealthy, wallowing in self-indulgence, who will come to ruin because they don't care about the poor whom they've exploited. And now, as Isaiah sees it in his vision, it's our bloody hands that cause his God to despise all the ways the people worship, to turn away in anger, and to refuse to hear the people's prayers.

"(E)ven though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood."

The bloody hands are excruciatingly visible since the form of prayer in Isaiah's day was with hands stretched out. Their offenses, then, were "in your face" to their God. The metaphorical blood was metaphorically visible, even if they had ritually washed their hands in the usual way.

All is not irrevocably lost, however. Isaiah holds out the possibility of a different kind of hand-washing. It's not a ritual cleansing; it can only come if you stop doing all that bad stuff and learn how to do good. It's a simple formula: "seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." Those four things, understood in their fullness, cover in one way or another all the issues we tend to think of as separate items on an agenda for reform. They're linked because the problems they address are systemic. They're built into our institutions, into the way we do everything.

After five verses of blistering condemnation of every aspect of the ritual life of the rulers and the people, and after these two verses on how to do right, then come three verses of "reasoning together" or "arguing together". It's in the form of "either-or": do right or else. Do the right thing and you'll "eat the good of the land"; the bloody red of your sins will become white as snow. Persist in doing what you're doing, then "you shall be devoured by the sword".

It's a persuasive argument, but only if you "have ears" and listen to it.

A side issue, as it relates to the Christian Right: in these verses, Isaiah is addressing "you rulers of Sodom" and "you people of Gomorrah". To the Right, these cities are icons of sexual immorality. But to Isaiah, they're symbols of injustice. In the verse immediately following the threat of destruction by the sword, he does use the metaphor of sexual immorality, but the sin he describes isn't sexual.

This is how it goes: "How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her -- but now murderers!" And murder is a metaphor, too -- for cheating in commerce (debasing the coinage and watering the wine); for leaders being companions of thieves and takers of bribes and gifts. The fullness of murder lies in not defending the orphan and widow -- those unfortunates who stand outside the economic and legal protections provided by the extended kinship networks which were the social security, welfare, and unemployment insurance systems of the times, as well as the public defenders in law suits.

Just thinking and talking about these murderers makes the God of Isaiah's vision really angry. Forget about "arguing together". Now his wrath is definitely turned on. But, even so, after the destruction that will surely come, the city will be restored as a city of righteousness. Zion, with those who repent and change their ways, shall be redeemed by their new acts of justice. But everyone else? "The strong shall become like tinder, and their work like a spark; they and their work shall burn together, with no one to quench them."

Perhaps to the Right, this sounds like Isaiah is advocating "salvation by works", not by faith -- with faith being defined as fervent assent to a particular belief system about the existence and nature of God, and about the Bible.

Isaiah, however, has God equating faith with obedience in doing justice. Those who don't obey this call of his by doing something about injustices are the real rebels: they are "the strong" who will burn up "like tinder". The strong: presumably, then, the princes and rulers, by whatever title they currently go by.

Stand against the strong, who are the real rebels; reject evil, which is business as usual; be faithful in your weakness and obey That Which Really Matters; do good.

What could be simpler or more direct? The early followers of Jesus called it The Way.

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