“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” (Isaiah l:lla)
The words in the lesson from Isaiah are like a strike in the face, especially considering that they come from the very first chapter of this lengthy and powerful book of prophecies. Isaiah began his ministry of prophecy in Judah in 740 B.C. and continued his clarion calls through the reigns of five kings. He launched his prophecies with a severe condemnation of contemporary rituals and observances, sacrifices and festivals. He declared that such things were repugnant to God — better if they were not done at all than done with the hypocrisy and opportunistic motives of a rebellious people who pursued lives of immorality, idolatry, perjury, and seeking wealth through exploitation of the weak. Hosea and Amos had condemned the people of the northern kingdom of Israel for the same sins that Isaiah was condemning in Judah. Isaiah was alive at the fall of Israel in 721 B.C., when it was overwhelmed by its enemies as its prophets had predicted if the people did not repent.
Isaiah does not merely condemn, however; he pleads, as had Hosea and Amos before him, for the people’s repentance: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isa 1: 16-18). But the people as a nation, like Israel, refused to repent and, also like Israel, were destroyed.
The lesson from Hebrews refers to Abraham, the progenitor of the people whose nations had been destroyed for faithlessness. Abraham is upheld as the “first of the faithful,” who lived and acted by faith — firm and all-encompassing trust in God’s promises, though he saw only the beginning of the fulfillment of those promises in his lifetime. (The lesson from Genesis provides one of many examples of Abraham’s fidelity.) Those who followed Abraham’s example of fidelity are described as people who “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16). This is in contrast to those in the time of Isaiah who only “went through the motions” of devotion to God while their lives were very “this worldly.”
In today’s lessons, then, we are presented with the teaching that God demands lives that give evidence of wholehearted devotion to him, mercifully calls for repentance from those who fail, and punishes and excludes those who stubbornly refuse to do either.
Look it Up
Note the similar messages to that of Isaiah — in Hosea 6:6, to which Jesus referred the Pharisees in Matt. 9:13. Likewise, see from a much later time the prophecy of Joel (2:13a)
Think About It
People often prefer to give a thing, even a costly gift, to avoid having to give themselves. Where are you doing this with spouse, children, parents, friends, the Church, God?