The OSFGroups have started a new study. It’s on the book of Isaiah. I didn’t write a set study for the book this time, but am leaving it open to group members to input their questions, insights, and impressions for discussion of each passage we read each weekday, with the following pointers:
* Reminder: These words were written to particular people groups at a particular time in a particular context AND they are also somehow relevant to us.
* Advice: When you are trying to discern how the words are relevant to us, it may be tempting to read the diatribes as applying directly to the people with whom we disagree–spiritually, morally, philosophically, practically. Without bludgeoning your own self over the head with them, try to notice FIRST where in your own life or self these words are relevant to YOU.
I jump in at the end of the day. Occasionally, I may post some of my own reflections on the passage of the day here in this blog as well as in the private group. Today is one of those days. One participant hypothesized about how shocking it must have seemed to the ancient Judeans to hear that their sacrifices at the Temple weren’t actually what God wanted from them. Then I said:
I’m sure it really was shocking! I love the way this passage is set up: first God (through Isaiah) gets all rant-y about how His kids have totally forgotten about Him, are oblivious to the ways that He cares for them, and have actually turned their backs on Him and are rebelling against Him. And I’m sure they’re thinking, “Hey wait a second. We’re TOTALLY acknowledging Him. We kill animals in His temple all the time!” And then He’s like, “Do you think those sacrifices mean anything to me?” Then God starts enumerating ways that they can work on the relationship.
Here (just because I like to needle–and I guess also because I really think this) is where we as individuals tend to focus on the things we’re better at, that we perceive others as being worse at. This isn’t even intentional most of the time (if ever)—it is a rare person who can see their own blind spots (that’s why they’re called blind spots!). A person who is more social-justice oriented will immediately gravitate to verse 17, might notice that they are feeling judgmental about other people, and commence some introspection about where they themselves are not acting justly (or advocating for justice) in their world. On the other hand, a person who is more morality-centric will immediately gravitate to verse 16, might notice they are thinking about all the sins other people around them should be “washing themselves” of, and then commence some introspection about where they themselves are failing morally. (This is probably idealizing a little bit. The introspection in either case is not always a foregone conclusion. )
Then we all keep moving in our little sphere and we will often interpret the other of the two verses in light of the one that we gravitate to. So the social justice person assumes that helping the oppressed is what cleansing oneself in God’s sight means (that justice is the sum of morality). And the morality person assumes that helping the oppressed is at best an example of giving up evil ways, and at worst is just kind of a metaphor for it.
It seems to me that the conflict in this passage (in the whole book, really) is that God wants an actual relationship with His kids, and part of that is that He wants them to have a family resemblance. God is a loving Parent, who provides for His family, and who is angry and hurt when the people bearing the family name are not reflecting His character and His actions. Even though Hebrew parallelism (poetic stating of an idea twice in a row in slightly different ways) is a real and significant literary style all through the Bible (especially the Old Testament), AND although I confess I don’t know Hebrew, I don’t believe that verses 16 and 17 are an example of parallelism, but of progression: God is urging character transformation leading to transformation of action. Purification from sin, and justice, are not precisely two different things, but they’re not exactly the same thing, either. One flows out of the other. We can’t know what true justice is if we aren’t developing the character and priorities of God.
The thing that’s true about both of those things, though, is that we can’t achieve either one via rote, prescribed, religious rites, and apart from an actual relationship with our Maker. I love that God invites the people to hash it out with Him, in verse 18. He doesn’t plan to cave on His standards/boundaries/priorities, but He does want a restored relationship with them, and wants them to receive His forgiveness.
What, if anything, do you think God would want you to hash out with Him?