A powerful critique emerges from the juxtaposition of these readings, one which Christian exegesis has echoed for centuries, but one which is all too easy to forget. The readings begin with a classic indictment of external religion shorn of interiority, coupled with a reminder of what ritual is meant to instill:Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rescue the oppressed, Defend the orphan, Plead for the widow. (Isa 1:17)
The search for communion with the divine—when done sincerely—ought to naturally lead into practical results in this earthly life, as the Liberation theologians have taught us. If we are attending church every week but ignoring the modern-day untouchables, then we deserve Isaiah’s charge of being like Sodom and Gomorrah, those paradigms of pride and xenophobia.
That Isaiah’s ire at the temple cult is not a revocation of religious service is bolstered by the Psalm, where G-d speaks against those who forget Him, even while defining his people along ritual terms (‘those who have sealed my covenant with sacrifice’ Ps 50:5). It is striking in this Psalm, however, how the ‘higher’ religious concepts are very much rooted in a particular faith community and context (the Jerusalem temple and sacrificial cult). The function of ritual in forming a community of believers is not to be dishonored. Indeed, one of the threats uttered for forgetfulness is loss of community.
After two ritually focused texts, the reading in Hebrews reminds us that the Kingdom is one higher than this world, and that we are merely passing through—receiving and giving gifts in this world, to which we should not cling as if they are the real objects of our need. Abraham received a land which was still not the promised land. If the prophet reminded us that this world should be impacted by our faith and the psalmist encouraged this setting within community, the epistolarian warns us from tying our hopes and energies too closely to our efforts in this world, be they ritual, social judicial, or communal. We are embodied, and our faith must bear fruit in this world, but without the internal—the faith element—we risk losing the better homeland.
The Gospel reading is the eschatological kicker. If the previous text in Hebrews may tempt us towards complacency—after all, we are not of this world—Christ reminds us that we will still be here when He returns; it is our work which we have done here for which He will “fasten his belt and have [us] sit down to eat and will come and serve [us] (slightly rephrased).” The present Lucan text treats this return as a positive hope, but we might remember in the background the more dire parables in other pericopes (think of Matthew’s ten virgins, Matt 25:1-13). The tone is expectant: the imperatives we have been discussing are marching orders, not merely humanistic platitudes.
The interlocking nature of these themes is nicely borne out by the closing section of the first reading:“Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord. though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. (Isa 1:18, NRSV)
The NIV translates this “let us reason together.” This is an attractive, comfortable idea, of G-d debating with us; unfortunately this is not the case. The root of the Hebrew word used is a judicial word, used of the arguments used in a trial. Israel is on trial in this verse. Although this section of Isaiah has been often used like an announcement of the Gospel, the correct translation is actually quite difficult, and the likely meanings of the verses are not necessarily cuddly. There are three ways of reading this passage, and—since this passage is poetic—it is best to hold all three in tension together. The first is the traditional offer of forgiveness: your sins will be washed away, white as wool. The second is the complete inverse, reading the sentences like a sarcastic comment on the audience’s expectations: your sins certainly will not be glossed over. The third somewhat mediates these options, but suggests that forgiveness is difficult, as difficult as washing out blood (and perhaps alluding to the function of blood sacrifice in the cultic passage before). If we hold these three in tension, the resulting effect is to highlight not only the seriousness of not dealing with the ethical imperatives in verse 17 (social justice), but the seriousness of not accepting the need for a spiritual, internal response to these (social) imperatives. If our ritual lacks ethical practicalities and faith, our sins will not be white as snow; if the marginalized do find a home in our sanctuaries without such deeds becoming our sole telos, our sins will be like wool. The following verses comment on the results of serious engagement with spiritual and ethical atonement: land (community) or exile. It is a call to hold the above readings in balance together.Jason M. Silverman 8 August 2010