Grace, mercy, and peace to you from the one who was, and who is, and who is to come.
Isaiah was a court prophet at Jerusalem. Speaking for God, he wanted the Jerusalem temple bigshots to pay attention to mercy and justice. It’s fair to describe today’s prophetic words as a rant – an epic rant.
Here and now in this political season we hear plenty of ranting. Just look at youtube or twitter, or turn on the tv or radio, or pick up a newspaper. We have access to all sorts of people telling us that we’re headed for big trouble. We hear all sorts of promises of salvation from that trouble if only…. If only we can give money to a certain cause. If only we vote a certain way. If only we change our way of thinking to match a certain pattern. If only we do those things and think these ways, we can be saved from the trouble to come, If only.
Right. How’s that working out for you? It just makes me turn off the radio, delete my twitter account, and close my ears. It makes me numb and disgusted.
Why is prophetic ranting in the Bible any different from 21st-century political ranting? Why should we pay attention to Isaiah? Our circumstances are different from the people in Isaiah’s first audience: they ran a vast temple operation doing ritual animal sacrifice. We don’t . Many of us aspire to live our lives with at least some focus on justice and mercy.
So, why, and how, should we listen to Isaiah? How can we use our jaded ears to hear God’s words of mercy? Yes, they’re Biblical words, and yes we OUGHT to listen to them. Yes, Isaiah’s rant reminds us of God’s commitment to justice. Justice is good and we OUGHT to pursue it.
But: OUGHT is a poor motivator. “OUGHT”, maybe, persuades children to eat their vegetables, if we’re lucky. We’ve been trained by media culture to resist the OUGHTs poured on us. We’re good at preventing all kinds of OUGHT-purveyors – advertisers, political ranters, even parents who want us to eat healthy food – play on our heartstrings.
So let’s listen to Isaiah without focusing on the OUGHTs. Let’s back up a bit and listen to what the Lord, through Isaiah’s mouth, says about the rituals of that day. “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;” He challenged their assumption that repeating their rituals delighted the Lord.
It’s easy for us to see the rituals of ancient times with critical eyes. Of course those people should take care of hungry widows rather than putting on fancy vestments to slaughter unblemished heifers. That’s obvious to us.
But, it’s harder to look at our own rituals critically. I wonder what rituals you have in your life? Give them some thought …
Some rituals are life-giving. I always touch my pocket to make sure my keys are there before closing the trunk of my car. When I was a little kid my family was driving across a desert. We stopped so my dad could get the extra gas can from the trunk and fill up. He locked the keys in the trunk, and we sat in the hot sun for a long time. So, I have that little ritual.
Other rituals aren’t quite so positive. The writer Malcolm Gladwell tells about basketball ritual: the foul line shot. It must be done in a way that fulfills customs of righteousness. This is the story of a great basketball player. Wilt Chamberlain was an amazing player, but he had a great weakness: his atrocious free-throw record. But, in the 1961-1962 season he had a great record. In one game he made 28 of 32 foul shots. But in the next season he went back to his terrible record. Why? For one season he ignored the established foul-shooting ritual, and shot underhanded. And he sunk most of his shots. In the next season he went back to overhand shooting, and went back to sinking 4 out of 10.
Malcolm Gladwell asked around and found that it’s far easier to hit the basket that underhanded. But he also found almost nobody doing it. He quoted a point guard on the Columbia women’s team saying “as kids you play around with the idea of a granny shot or underhand, but I’m not sure we’ve ever taken it seriously.”
Wow. An elite athlete – a woman – using the term “granny shot” for something that could help Columbia beat UConn? Really? This overhanded shooting is a modern example of a ritual people don’t question, but that doesn’t do any good. People won’t change the way they do this because to change would be vaguely shameful.
This points to a way to hear the prophet’s words of justice and righteousness. Can Isaiah help us shine a bright light on our rituals – the ones we’ve stopped seeing – the ones that distract us from justice and righteousness? What kinds of distracting rituals do you have? Is anybody willing to mention one?
- Right of way on the road transforms into my God-given right to go first. Subvert it. Let people turn in front of you.
How about the ritual of selling and buying food? Sure, farmers, truckers, and supermarket workers deserve their wages. We live in a money economy and food is worth money, no doubt.
But we have taken some life-giving truths – everybody needs dignified work and everybody needs to eat – and wrapped it in ritual. Our ritual has made it into a source of shame when one of us can’t buy the food we need. Why does that shame make so much sense for us? It makes as much sense as always shooting overhand – it makes us appear, and feel righteous.
We can shine Isaiah’s “I despise your burnt offering” words on our rituals. In the light of those bright words we see our rituals clearly. Then we can challenge them, and maybe even subvert them, in the cause of righteousness.
Here’s a simple and fun way to subvert the food-selling and -buying ritual: if you have a few bucks to spare one morning, use them to pay for the person behind you in line at the coffee shop. Or, buy an extra sandwich and hand it to a stranger. Sink a granny shot.
Harder still: if somebody offers you something like that, accept it with thanks and a smile. Try not to ask yourself “does that person see me and think I’m hungry and homeless?” Skip the part about “somebody else needs it more than me.” That may be true, but accepting food is just as important as giving it if we’re going to rethink that ritual. Receiving graceful generosity just as hard as giving it. It’s just as hard as getting laughed at for sinking all your granny shots on the basketball court, even if you win the game.
Here’s my point. OUGHT isn’t enough. We can’t and we won’t be just and merciful just because we OUGHT to. Justice and mercy springs from our hearts. Jesus is right: when we find our treasure, we find our hearts in the same place.
The prophet’s epic rant wakes us up. He teaches us that the rituals we cling to are NOT our treasure. He opens our eyes and lets us see where our treasure truly lies, and so helps us find our hearts. Then God’s endless justice and mercy spring forth from us as granny shots that hit the basket effortlessly.
I hope and pray you’ll rethink some of your rituals and sink some merciful and kind granny shots in the days to come. These words I say to you in Jesus’s name. Amen.