21th Sunday Ordinary Time – Isaiah’s Warning: Avoid Corruption; Unite the Community

A Plate of Cakes, Jehan Georges Vibert, circa 1840–1902, private collection (WikiArt)

August 25, 2019
Isaiah 66:18-21

Several weeks ago on July 7, we read a section from Isaiah (66:10-14c), which comes a few verses before today’s selection (66:18-21). We saw then that these verses were written by the third person to use the name Isaiah. The first lived in Jerusalem around the end of the 8th century BC, the second in Babylon about 540 BC, and this Isaiah sometime around 515 BC while Jerusalem was being rebuilt.

The Second and Third Isaiahs did not choose the name casually. Although they lived in different times and/or places, they all shared a few common beliefs. The most important was that the God of the Jews was the Lord of History. By the time of Third Isaiah, this meant that He was not only God but also that the Lord controlled world history from the beginning of time, not just the destinies of the Jews. This meant that He expressed Himself in concrete events and our relationship with Him was to be more than verbal.

To use the name Isaiah meant that the author understood that worship and justice were inseparable. This is the special theme of chapter 66. When we examined this last month, we emphasized that the call of the Jews and now indeed ourselves was to be the “light to the nations.” Now let us look at the corrosive effects of corruption on leaders.

This is the last chapter of Isaiah and he will use it to summarize his message. It is interesting then that he begins the chapter by telling us who are the people who truly understand him:

This is the one whom I approve:
the lowly and afflicted man who trembles at my word.
Merely slaughtering an ox is like slaying a man;
sacrificing a lamb, like breaking a dog’s neck;
Bringing a cereal offering, like offering swine’s blood;
burning incense, like paying homage to an idol.
Since these have chosen their own ways
and taken pleasure in their own abominations
(Isaiah 66:2b–3)

This would have been controversial. There were those who believed that true worship alone was enough to find God’s favor. This Isaiah unabashedly rejects with some degree of sarcasm:

Hear the word of the LORD,
you who tremble at his word:
Your brethren who, because of my name,
hate and reject you, say,
“Let the LORD show his glory
that we may see your joy;”
but they shall be put to shame.

(Is. 66:5)

Isaiah does not reject temple worship but rather the venality of the priests and temple officials. He is usually contrasted with the prophet Haggai. Most likely, Haggai was active a bit before Isaiah. He believed that the first responsibly of the Jewish people was to rebuild the Temple. He also saw the greed of the leaders, but thought its principal effect was the delay in restoring Temple worship:

You expected much, but it came to little;
and what you brought home, I blew away.
For what cause? says the LORD of hosts.
Because my house lies in ruins,
while each of you hurries to his own house.
(Hag. 1:9)

There was certainly a debate as to what to do and when to do it (with some more impatient in completing the Temple than others), but Isaiah’s targets are not the devout Jews like Haggai, who are more liturgically minded than himself. Rather, his targets are the priests and their followers who see the Temple as an end in itself and not a means to holiness.

Isaiah’s opponents do have some ammunition. The Assyrian King Cyrus who allowed the Jewish leaders to return to Jerusalem and rebuild is 1,000 miles away. Managing the rebuilding was costly and time-consuming and anyone who has attempted to build anything with the aid of bureaucrats will recognize the problem. Isaiah is forthright:

Who ever heard of such a thing, 
or saw the like? 
Can a country be brought forth in one day, 
or a nation be born in a single moment? 
Yet Zion is scarcely in labor 
when she gives birth to her children. 
 Shall I bring a mother to the point of birth, 
and yet not let her child be born? says the LORD; 
Or shall I who allow her to conceive, 
yet close her womb? says your God.
(Is. 66:8–9)

Although there are problems with construction, the Lord has restored his people by reestablishing his law and receiving the obedience of the people. That is the most important thing, the rest may follow. Thus:

Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad because of her,
all you who love her;
Exult, exult with her,
all you who were mourning over her!
(Is 66:10)

Those nations and those within Jerusalem who did not take the Lord seriously will suffer accordingly;

For the LORD shall judge all mankind
by fire and sword
and many shall be slain by the LORD.
(Is. 66:16)

We can now understand the power of what follows:

I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.
(Is. 66:18)

The pilgrimage of the nations to Jerusalem is a frequent theme not only in Isaiah but in other contemporary writings. Yet it gains particular power in this context.

They will not come as visitors, “from them I will send fugitives to the nations: to Tarshish, Put and Lud, Mosoch, Tubal and Javan, to the distant coastlands that have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory; and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations.
(Is. 66:19)

For a specific purpose:

They shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the LORD
(Is 66:20a).

And most importantly:

Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD.
(Is. 66:21)

The restoration of Jerusalem was one of the great miracles of world history. As we have seen just a few verses ago, it was literally a rebirth. The Lord was not going to allow this to fail because of weak leadership. Therefore, if the present clergy—priests and Levities—were too corrupt to function, He will literally bring in their replacements from the four quarters of the earth. Worship is important, but it is judged not by the punctiliousness with which the prayers are said and the efficiency by which the animals were sacrificed, but by how effectively it leads to bringing the members of the community closer to each other and joining the community to God.

We see this in Pope Francis. He has admonished all who wish to lead in the church to “accompany” the faithful and by good example assist them in knowing Jesus and belonging to his people. Leaders who wish to be served rather than serve should be reminded of the last verse of Isaiah. The faithful are exhorted to go outside of Jerusalem to see what happened to those who betrayed their calling:

They shall go out and see the corpses
of the men who rebelled against me;
Their worm shall not die,
nor their fire be extinguished;
and they shall be abhorrent to all mankind.
(Is. 66:24)