August 25, 2019

Eleventh Week after Pentecost Year C 2019

Our relationship with God is inextricably tied to our relationship with each other. As goes one, so goes the other. Or to put it the way Jesus did, the whole Bible can be summed up in these two relationships, Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The prophet Isaiah seems to be saying the same thing in our reading from the Hebrew scriptures today. You have to remember that, in the biblical sense, love has very little to do with how you feel about someone or something, and everything to do with how you act. What you do is the measurement of your love for God and your neighbor, not your depth of feeling. Maybe that’s why I never connected very well with the emotion of Contemporary Christian praise music, because our emotional love for Jesus is not the point, following Jesus and doing what he has asked us to do is.

Back to Isaiah. The Jewish people have returned from their exile in Babylon to the promised land after being liberated by Cyrus the Persian, modern day Iran. This small group of Jewish refugees are trying to put their lives back together as well as their homeland. But there are at least two major problems God has with this group and through the prophet Isaiah God is making known what those problems are.

First, if the Jewish people want to restore their relationship with God, they need to attend to a massive social problem. The passage in Isaiah just prior to our lection reading for today says this:

Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

The Jewish people were fasting in order to get God to do what they wanted, but God responds through the prophet:

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Isaiah continues speaking for God:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

God is fed up with the Israelite’s selfishness, even their fasting is self-serving. So God challenges them to restore their relationships with their fellow human beings by exercising compassion, by taking care of those less fortunate among them, to do for others as they would want done for themselves if they were in the same circumstance. By caring for others, they will thereby restore their relationship with God.

Secondly, Isaiah challenges the people to restore their relationship with God by rightly observing the Sabbath, rather than using it for their own personal gain.

If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord.

Both of Isaiah’s challenges are inter-connected, inter-related, two spheres of the same reality. It would be like wanting to have a relationship with me while treating my kids with disdain. It would not endear you to me if those I love are mistreated. Conversely, if you only want a relationship with me in order to use me to get something for yourself, that doesn’t work very well either.

Proverbs 14 makes this relationship clear when it says, “one who oppresses the poor taunts their maker and one who shows compassion for the poor honors God.”

Honoring the Sabbath is a way for us to acknowledge that we are not in control and that we owe our very existence to the benevolent other we call God. In honoring the Sabbath, we remove ourselves from the center of the universe and take our place as servants of this loving God. And if we are servants, then our aim is to serve not only this God, but those others whom this God has made.

Rabbi Shai Held says:

Both of Isaiah’s requirements—social reform and sabbath observance—thus share a common religious and ethical vision: a society worthy of receiving God’s light is one that recognizes the inestimable worth of every human being, even and especially the vulnerable and downtrodden. It is a tall order, and one shudders to think how far we fall from it. But we are not free to desist from the spiritual and political work God places before us: to serve God and to embrace human beings are two tasks that are eternally and inextricably intertwined.

And that, of course, brings us to Jesus, who heals a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years, bent over and unable to stand up straight, only able to see people’s feet and not their faces. This woman didn’t ask to be healed, but Jesus saw her and called her to him and “When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” Of course the leader of the synagogue was indignant because you weren’t supposed to “work” on the Sabbath. And apparently, Jesus hadn’t read our passage from Isaiah today – or had he? By healing this woman on the Sabbath, Jesus was fulfilling both of Isaiah’s concerns – caring for those in need and honoring God’s interests rather than selfish ones. Surely, heaven rejoiced to see that woman healed and God’s Sabbath fulfilled!