What does God really want? Justice, mercy, and pilgrims who live by faith.
Justice and Mercy – The eighth-century prophets declared these more important to God than sacrifice and religious ceremonies. Especially in three famous passages in Amos, Micah, and this Sunday’s reading in Isaiah.
· Amos voiced God’s outburst, “I hate, I despise your festivals… But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos -24, NRSV).
· Micah of Moresheth gave instruction concerning proper service of God: “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? … He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:7-8).
In our Isaiah passage, the prophet proclaims the “teaching [torah] of our God” to the notorious sinners of
A “torah” is an instruction by priests about what God requires of those seeking access to the holy place. We hear the original life-situation of such a torah in the Micah passage referred to above.
With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old? (Micah 6:6)
People need instruction about how to approach a God who is holy and powerful enough to bring better crops, to provide healthy offspring, and to keep away – or bring in judgment – the armies of a mighty
Assyria. “What must I do …?” The business of the priest’s torah was
to tell you what to do to be saved at this place at this time.
The answer in this Isaiah passage, as in the Amos and Micah passages, is that God does not require abundant sacrifices and awesome religious ceremonials – God even hates such things. At least, God hates them when they are the doings of a deceitful people.
“I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity” (verse 13).
The finest religious action, even personal prayer before God, becomes intolerable when the hands spread out in prayer have blood on them (verse 15)! Whether visible to everyone or not, God sees the blood, and the presence of such a person is a desecration.
However, there is more to God’s word: God also says, it is not too late. No matter how scarlet or crimson your hands are (verse 18), a complete renewal is possible.
It is possible on the condition that you radically change.
What must I do?
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
… cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow (verses 16-17).
With such a conversion of your habitual ways, you may still be able to “eat the good of the land” (verse 19).
Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23.
The Psalm reading presents the coming of God to assemble the covenant partners for judgment.
An awesome and glorious power out of
this Lord with devouring fire and tempest (verses 1-2). The “faithful ones” who made covenant with
God by sacrifices are gathered to hear the righteous judgment of God witnessed
by the heavens – that is, by infallible witnesses to all human deeds (verses
The divine declaration to those under judgment is that their sacrifices have been duly noted; these things “are continually before” God (verse 8). Our reading skips over one declaration of God that prepares for the psalm’s conclusion. Instead of the flesh of bulls and blood of goats, what God wants is “a sacrifice of thanksgiving” (verse 14). Then, the conclusion.
Those who bring thanksgiving as their sacrifice honor me;
to those who go the right way
I will show the salvation of God (verse 23).
The psalm, too, delivers the torah concerning true religious service to God.
One of the most famous passages about faith in all of scripture is from the Letter to the Hebrews, the opening of our reading.
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (verse 1,
The rest of this chapter identifies and celebrates certain heroines and heroes of faith in the Hebrew scriptures, though our reading is confined to Abraham and his immediate family – after a brief comment on faith in the creation of the world by the word of God (verse 3).
In our reading, the showcase example of faith is Abraham. Abraham is the archetype of those who live in the world as pilgrims. They live “in tents,” trusting in the promise that ultimately they will reach “the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (verse 10).
There is a recognition that fulfillment of hope may be distant. “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them…. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country…” (verses 13-16).
This model of Christian life as a pilgrimage from a past degenerate world toward a future of God’s making in God’s time is steadily reinforced in the rest of this Letter. This model also played a long role in later Christian life, particularly famous in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678).
The requirement of justice and mercy was what led ultimately to the pronouncement of God’s coming judgment. Jesus, following the older prophets and his mentor John the Baptist, repeated that announcement.
All Jesus’ preaching assumed that his hearers stand immediately before that judgment. For some – the poor, the oppressed, the meek – the coming of God’s judgment was good news: Relief at last! For others (the many?), it was threatening news. Their whole past was about to catch up with them.
Our Gospel reading is about how people are supposed to live as they wait for the imminent judgment of God.
First, they are told to give their goods to charity. “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (verse 33, NRSV). This instruction is straightforward and unqualified. It is addressed, of course, to people who have just been told that theirs is the
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (verse 32).
Where one’s treasure is (verse 34) is the acid test for the faith of a disciple. Put in the cruder language of later times, “Follow the money,” and you will know the secrets of the hearts, not only of the pilgrims following their Lord but of the land-owners and merchants of the settled land (see the parable in -21).
The rest of the passage is not directly about possessions but about watchfulness for the Son of Man’s coming. The transition is not strange, “for detachment from possessions and worries is an important part of preparation for the Lord’s coming” (Robert Tannehill, Luke, Abingdon, 1996, p. 210).
The one who lives by faith is called (verses 35-40) not only to give up personal possessions, but also to live on the edge, with no long-range planning, no commitments that involve a long future. (No life insurance payments for the disciple.) Your Lord may return tonight. That is the stance of the Jesus follower. Live today as if it is your last day on earth. No homeowner knows when the burglar has scheduled a break-in (verse 39); no disciple knows when the Lord’s return will be sounded by a knock on the door.
On Jesus’ journey to
instructions seem to be for the committed band that has known for a while that
Jesus is the Anointed One – and perhaps also known that the journey leads to
death. However, as part of the Gospel
known to the churches of the second generation, they are also instructions for
the band of witnesses who will eventually infiltrate lands far beyond Judea.
Those churches had gradually evolved a new way of life, a life lived day by day in expectation of being visited by their heavenly Lord. As more time passed, they realized that that Way of Life was, in fact, the “kingdom” which was being given to God’s “little flock”!