What does God really want? Justice, mercy, and pilgrims who live by faith.
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Justice and Mercy — The eighth-century prophets declared these more important to God than sacrifice and religious ceremonies. Especially in three famous passages in Amos, Micah, and this Sunday’s reading in Isaiah.
Amos voiced God’s outburst, “I hate, I despise your festivals… But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21-24).
Micah of Moresheth gave instruction concerning proper service of God: “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? …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?” (Micah 6:7-8).
In our Isaiah passage, the prophet proclaims the “teaching [ torah ] of our God” to the notorious sinners of Jerusalem and Judah (verse 10). A “torah” is an instruction by priests about what God requires of those seeking access to the holy place. We hear the original life-situation of such a torah in the Micah passage referred to above.
With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?” (Micah 6:6)
People need instruction about how to approach a God who is holy and powerful enough to bring better crops, to provide healthy offspring, and to keep away — or bring in judgment — the armies of a mighty Assyria. “What must I do …?” The business of the priest’s torah was to tell you what to do to be saved at this place at this time.
The answer in this Isaiah passage, as in the Amos and Micah passages, is that God does not require abundant sacrifices and awesome religious ceremonials — God even hates such things. At least, God hates them when they are the doings of a crooked people. “I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity” (verse 13). The finest religious action, even personal prayer before God, becomes intolerable when the hands spread out in prayer have blood on them (verse 15)! Whether visible to everyone or not, God sees the blood, and the presence of such a person is a desecration.
However, God’s word in the rest of this speech is that it is not too late. No matter how scarlet or crimson your hands are (verse 18), a complete renewal is possible. It is possible on the condition that you radically change.
What must I do?
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
…cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow” (verses 16-17).
With such a conversion of your habitual ways, you may still be able to “eat the good of the land” (verse 19).
Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23
The Psalm reading presents the coming of God to assemble the covenant partners for judgment. An awesome and glorious power out of Zion is this Lord with devouring fire and tempest (verses 1-2). The “faithful ones” who made covenant with God by sacrifices are gathered to hear the righteous judgment of God witnessed by the heavens — that is, by infallible witnesses to all human deeds (verses 4-6).
The divine declaration to those under judgment is that their sacrifices have been duly noted; these things “are continually before” God (verse 8). Our reading skips over one declaration of God that prepares for the psalm’s conclusion. Instead of the flesh of bulls and blood of goats, what God wants is “a sacrifice of thanksgiving” (verse 14). Then, the conclusion.
Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me;
to those who go the right way
I will show the salvation of God (verse 23).
The psalm, too, delivers the torah concerning true religious service to God.
Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
One of the most famous passages about faith in all of scripture is from the Letter to the Hebrews, the opening of our reading. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (verse 1, NRSV). The rest of this chapter identifies and celebrates certain heroines and heroes of faith in the Hebrew scriptures, though our reading is confined to Abraham and his immediate family — after a brief comment on faith in the creation of the world by the word of God (verse 3).
In our reading, the showcase example of faith is Abraham. Abraham is the archetype of those who live in the world as pilgrims. They live “in tents,” trusting in the promise that ultimately they will reach “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (verse 10).
There is a recognition that fulfillment of hope may be distant. “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them….If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country…” (verses 13-16).
This model of Christian life as a pilgrimage from a past degenerate world toward a future of God’s making in God’s time is steadily reinforced in the rest of this Letter. It also played a long role in later Christian life, particularly famous in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).
The Gospel reading is taken from a block of somewhat miscellaneous sayings of Jesus, mostly about the requirements and hardships for disciples, those who follow Jesus in his Journey.
These requirements are severe. In our passage the “little flock” of Jesus’ disciples are assured that God is giving them the kingdom, and therefore they do not need
worldly possessions. “Sell your possessions and give alms” (verse 33). As with Abraham, the life of faithful disciples is lived toward a fulfillment beyond the world’s power to corrupt and fail (“where no thief comes near and no moth destroys”). The acid test for the faith of a disciple is where one’s treasure is. Put in the cruder language of later times, “Follow the money,” and you will know the secrets of the hearts, not only of the pilgrims following their Lord but of the land-owners and merchants of the settled land.
The one who lives by faith is called (verses 35-40) not only to give up personal possessions, but also to live on the edge, with no long-range planning, no commitments that involve a long future. (No insurance payments for the disciple.) Your Lord may return tonight. That is the stance of the Jesus follower. Live today as if it is your last day on earth. No homeowner knows when the burglar has scheduled a break-in (verse 39); no disciple knows when the Lord’s return will be sounded by a knock on the door.
Were these words of Jesus intended for everyone?, asks Peter, with an eye to future authority in the Christian communities (verse 41). Or perhaps they are only for an elect and dedicated few, a leadership circle?
On Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, these instructions seem to be for the committed band that has known for a while that Jesus is the Anointed One, and perhaps also known that the journey leads to death. However, as part of the Gospel, they are also instructions for the band of witnesses who will eventually infiltrate lands far beyond Judea and begin a ferment that will turn many peoples to an astonishing message of new life available in a wholly new community.