Proper 26

October 31, 2004
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 1:10-18
Reading 2: 
Psalm 119:137-144 or Psalm 32:1-7
Reading 3: 
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Reading 4: 
Luke 19:1-10
By Rick Marshall

The Isaiah text is a sobering indictment of the emptiness of religious activities if justice is not observed. The call to right behavior comes in verses 16 and 17. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” And what is right behavior, right religion, if not taking care of the orphan, the widow, the oppressed? Isaiah announces from the beginning that justice is the primary issue of the prophet’s message, and an accountability to justice. Religious activities in themselves do not replace doing justice. As mentioned earlier in the month, justice is a primary issue in the Bible. It is a measure of the well being and health of a society. “The orphan, the widow, the oppressed” is a standard list of those in society who are most vulnerable. Jesus begins his public ministry in Luke by reading from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed...” (4:18)  In various places in the Bible, lists of the most vulnerable people in society are offered as part of the indictment or the promise. Either a society is not taking care of the vulnerable, or the promise is that the vulnerable will be cared for. In any case, attention to the vulnerable is a measure of the health of a society and is included in the vision of the Kingdom of God or Reign of God. If justice is the mark, sin (missing the mark) then becomes violation of the vulnerable.

At the heart of the concern for justice is the recognition that the relationship between Creator and creation is primary. When the relationship (i.e. covenant) is supported, valued and nurtured, then well being will be a result. If the relationship is violated by idolatry, then well being will be illusive, especially when we set up our own (idolatrous) systems to create well being.

The story from Luke is a nice dance partner to the Isaiah text. Though not directly related to the concerns of Isaiah, holding the two texts together can create some interesting perspectives on the well being and the grace of God.

The Sunday School children’s tune still runs through my head as I read the story of Zacchaeus. His shortness of stature is noted as a connection for children: God even accepts the least. The point is well taken especially when the details of the story are fully noted. Zacchaeus is not only short, but he is a tax collector, and worse, a chief tax collector and even worse, rich. By the religious standards of the day, he is not qualified to receive God’s grace. Only those who are “in” can experience the grace of God. In typical Gospel fashion, the story turns social standards on their head and Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home, which is  bad enough, but worse, to sit down to dinner with this sinner. Jesus exposes himself to uncleanness simply by associating with this man. In Luke, Zacchaeus becomes a model of a changed heart,repentance. The value of confession and repentance is powerfully noted in the Psalm 32 text., and could very well be Zacchaeus’ thinking after Jesus’ visit.

The problem behind the Isaiah text is structures of society which favor the few against the many. The few get rich at the expense of the many. Zacchaeus would certainly fit into the indictment of Isaiah. He, by the nature of his profession, engages in systems of injustice. And he has earned a good living at it! So what does it look like to respond to the indictment of Isaiah? Look at Zacchaeus. “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.” (Luke 19:8) Then Jesus announces, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

Preaching the texts
The indictment of Isaiah and the story of repentance in Luke point to a dynamic that is ever present in our lives. From a process perspective, God is continually offering each occasion the best possible choice, through the initial aim, by which we can incorporate our past into the present moment. We often chose less than the best and so there is always a tension between what we are called to be and what we actually become. So repentance, instead of being a steady state, once-for-all choice, become an ongoing process of confessing our sins (missing the mark)and repenting, always responding to God’s call in our lives. This implies that God is part of the continuing struggle of our lives as we respond to what we know we can become. A sermon could focus on the “gap” between what we are called to be and what we actually become.

A sermon theme could be Paul’s awareness of the “upward call of God" in Philippians 3:14. God’s involvement in our moment-to-moment lives is through the initial aim and can be felt as a “lure” to move into the future by responding to God’s call in our life. It is a struggle to be open to God’s call, repenting when we fall short, and being ever attentive to the lure of God in our lives to maximize ourselves in the present moment, and to contribute to others who are going through the same process. Paul calls it “straining forward to what lies ahead.” Life is moving into a future, responding to God’s lure.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for more than 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.