Dumber than Dumb – Monday, 15th Week in ordinary time – Isaiah 1:10 – 17

I once read a lovely sentence that has made an impression on me. I cannot recall the author and so I am unable to credit the source. The sentence went thus, “speak to me of love, the cherry tree was asked and the cherry tree blossomed.” Love can only be defined when seen as ‘a verb’; in action. Words of love may sound glorious and while words reassure, actions speak louder! In the prophet Isaiah, the Lord is not tired of the actions of worship as much as he abhors their ‘acts’ or pretence of love.

We began our reflections with the prophet Isaiah who prophesied in the eight century BC before the exile took place. Last week we began our study of this book with chapter six which speaks of God’s call to Isaiah. We now go to the beginning of the book, to chapter one and from now on we will study selected readings as they appear in the liturgy of the Eucharist. Chapters 1-39 which were prophesied somewhere between the years 742 and 701. These first 39 chapters of Isaiah have been accepted by scripture scholars to be taken from Isaiah’s own ministry and deals mostly about judgment. The rest of the Book of Isaiah (Parts 2 and 3) is attributed to other writers.

The chapter opens with Yahweh’s frustration at having raised children who turned out to be rebellious. “They are a sinful nation laden with iniquity; offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord and who have despised the Holy one of Israel” (1:4).

The leaders and people of Judah were not like dumb animals, such as the ox or the donkey. They were dumber than dumb animals! The ox at least knew its owner, but Judah didn’t know who owned them. The donkey knows who takes care of him, but Judah didn’t know who took care of her. The language in the text may surprise readers who expect the Bible to conform to popular standards of decorum, but such language is typical of prophetic literature and perhaps typical for people who cared little for Yahweh.

It is frequently and rightly concluded that prophets functioned as something like the conscience of the monarchy. The kings were entrusted above all with the enactment and embodiment of justice and righteousness. But, of course, the kings seldom did what they were supposed to do; and so the prophets called them and the people to account, employing frequently the key words “justice” and “righteousness.”

Today’s reading and whole of chapter one, while written in stunning poetry (and I recommend you read verses 3-6) is a severe attack on religious hypocrisy. It is part of an oracle presumably uttered in the Temple at the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry. Like Amos Isaiah castigates ritual that is divorced from morality. The sincerity of the worshipper, not the number of his religious activities, is most important.

The passage also emphasizes divine freedom. Strictly speaking God is God and does not need human worship but delights in the praise of his people. Yet God will not and cannot be manipulated through empty and meaningless acts of worship.

Chapter 1 is like a courtroom scene. God is not only one of the parties in a lawsuit; he not only brings the indictment but is also the judge. So it’s kind of unfair, you might say. How can God be the judge, jury and executioner? The very accusations that God brings against them may also sound contradictory for God says “ I have had enough of your burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts. I do not delight in the blood of bulls or of lambs or of goats.” Remember, it was God who commanded sacrifices, who commanded offerings. It was God who set up an elaborate system to sacrifice animals to atone for sins. The law prescribes animal sacrifices as offerings to atone for sin (Leviticus 1; 4-7; 16; 22). Why would you say, ‘stop bringing them’?

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