Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
5th of February 2023
How I wish that I had the problems of the third of the prophets Isaiah. (Or maybe not.) As you are probably tired of me repeating, the three prophets we call ‘Isaiah’ were prophesying in the context of the greatest tragedy that had happened to the Jewish people since their slavery in Egypt. Third Isaiah, from whom we hear today, is writing in the sixth century BCE, after the Babylonian Exile has ended, when the people have left captivity in Babylon, returned home to Jerusalem, and yet found their home-coming incomplete. There had been tremendous hope in the prophecies of ‘Second’ Isaiah that the return from Exile would be a second Exodus from Egypt, leading to prosperity and joy. That has not happened. Life is difficult. There is no new and glorious kingdom. The Temple remains in ruins. It is from amid this despair that we hear Third Isaiah prophesy.
The great Temple of Solomon may not have been rebuilt, but it appears that the returned exiles are doing their best to follow the Law as they understand it. They are fasting, humbling themselves, bowing down their heads like bulrushes, and lying in sackcloth and ashes. No emptying churches here; all the people delight to draw near to God, seeking God and delighting to know God’s ways. Their priests must have looked at their full congregations with satisfaction. So I do sometimes wish my problem was Isaiah’s – a church overflowing, even if only with nominal and self-satisfied worshippers.
The Prophet Isaiah, however, is not happy about the number of worshippers. Israel’s prophets made a profession of challenging any self-satisfaction on Israel’s part. Last week we heard Micah say on behalf of the Lord, ‘O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me!’ Micah told them that the sacrifice God wanted was not burnt offerings, calves a year old, thousands of rams, tens of thousands of rivers of oil, or even the worshippers’ firstborn. What the Lord required of his people, said Micah, was that they do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with their God. (Micah 6:1-8) Micah was prophesying in the eighth century BCE, before the destruction of the Temple, so in his time superficial religion involved sacrifice. By the time of Third Isaiah, post-Exile, after the Temple’s destruction, superficial religion involves fasting. But the prophet’s accusations and the Lord’s demands are the same.
True religion, true worship, say Israel’s prophets, must include justice. Without justice, no matter how carefully worshippers follow outward forms, it is meaningless. The people to whom Isaiah is speaking might think that they delight to know God’s ways, but their righteousness is superficial. They engage in pious rituals, but oppress their workers and become involved in quarrelling and fighting, even violence. They do not share their bread with the hungry or their homes with the homeless. They do not cover the naked. They hide from their own kin; that is, they close their eyes to those in the community who are in need and pretend that they are the responsibility of someone else. They are not fasting as the Lord chooses, they are not loosing the bonds of injustice, undoing the thongs of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free, and breaking every yoke. If the people of Israel were to do that, were to fast as the Lord demands, Isaiah tells them, then their light would break forth like the dawn and the Lord would listen to their prayers. As it is, all their careful rituals are meaningless.
In today’s extract from the Sermon on the Mount Jesus also wants his disciples to behave in such a way that they shine a light into the world. The lectionary’s pairing of the words of the prophets with the Sermon on the Mount reminds us that Jesus’ teachings grew from Jewish roots. For Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses, the authoritative interpreter of the Law, not someone who has come to replace the law with grace. For Jews the law, the Torah, was grace; it was a privilege and a blessing, a revelation of God’s love for them. The psalmists wrote of the law of the Lord: ‘How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!’ (Psalm 119:103); ‘More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.’ (Psalm 19:10) When Jesus says, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil,’ we need to remember that he is not reimposing a burden. He is loosing the bonds of injustice and undoing the thongs of the yoke by rightly interpreting the law and the prophets so that they can once again provide liberation.
Matthew, like Third Isaiah, is speaking to a community that needs to determine how it can continue to be the people of God without a Temple. Scholars agree that the Gospel according to Matthew was written by a Jewish Christian for a community primarily made up of Jews after the Roman defeat of Jerusalem and the final destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The Temple had been the central unifying institution for the people of Israel. How could they survive as a people without it? We know of two groups who answered that question so successfully that they still exist today. One group, descended from the Pharisees whose focus was the Torah rather than the Temple, became what is now mainstream Judaism. The other group, which declared that the Temple was no longer necessary because Jesus’ crucifixion had been the final sacrifice after which no more sacrifices were needed for atonement, were our ancestors. Today we are two different religions, but at the time Matthew was writing that was not yet the case. Matthew did not think followers of Jesus were part of a ‘new Israel’ that was replacing the existing people of God. Matthew thought instead that followers of Jesus were the legitimate leaders of the nation of Israel. Matthew would have had no time for Christian Supersessionism, the idea that the church has replaced Israel. We need to make sure that our commitment to following the way of Jesus, our belief that he interpreted the law and the prophets correctly, does not lead us into theological anti-Semitism.
What is Jesus’ right interpretation of the law and the prophets? We know that near the end of his life, when questioned by the Pharisees about which commandment in the law is the greatest, Jesus said that ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”’ (Matthew 22:32-40) When Jesus tells his disciples that unless their righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, they will never enter the kingdom of heaven, he means that his disciples must outdo the scribes and Pharisees in love.
If Jesus’ disciples do this, they will be salt and light, both of which can make a huge impact with a small amount. Israel had proudly understood itself to be a holy nation, God’s chosen people, among the bigger empires that surrounded it. The church, which believes itself to be ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,’ (1 Peter 2:9) is also a fellowship of those God has called out from a larger surrounding society. We often worry that as churches get smaller we can no longer answer God’s call to us, that we will no longer be able to serve God as God desires. But Jesus is calling us to be salt, and a small amount of salt can change the flavour of an entire dish; Jesus is calling us to be light, and one lamp on a lampstand can give light to an entire house. Even quite small denominations and congregations can be light and salt to the world if we truly seek to follow Jesus and live out love.
The Prophet Isaiah also offers reassurance to those who have brought children and grandchildren up in the faith and have seen them turn away from the church. I have spoken to members of this congregation who regret that this community that has been so important in their lives is no longer part of their children’s lives. Isaiah told the people that the worship God chooses is to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke, to share bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into their houses, to cover the naked, and not to hide from their own kin. When Jesus describes the difference between the sheep and the goats he uses the same criteria, that the sheep have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, taken care of the sick and visited those in prison. (Matthew 25:31-46) When your children and grandchildren do these things, they are worshipping God rightly, even if they do not join you here on Sunday morning.
William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during the Second World War, is often quoted as saying that the church is the only organisation on earth that exists for those who are not its members. We have been called by God into the church not primarily for our own good, although hopefully we find in the church a community of love and support that helps us to live the lives to which we aspire, but in order that we can show the world God’s love and justice and mercy. We are to share the saltiness of God’s justice, the light of God’s mercy, with everyone we encounter. We do this when we love God and love our neighbours as ourselves. If we share God’s love with the world, then we will be exceeding the righteousness of the ‘scribes and Pharisees,’ those who teach the law but neglect its weightier matters of justice and mercy and faith. (Matthew 23:23) If we share God’s love with the world, we will be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, and citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Thanks be to God. Amen.