The Lord is My Shepherd, Eastman Johnson, 1863, Smithsonian American Art Museum
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Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 10, 2020
We once more read from “First” Isaiah today. Last week in the “Song of the Vineyard” (Isaiah 5), he joined the prophets of his time in revealing and condemning injustice; most directly for Isaiah, the inequality that divided the rich from the poor and weakened community. If that were all he did he would be remembered as a great prophet and leader. However, we find in Isaiah the first clear articulation of the vocation of the Jewish people. His understanding of this is so profound that it not only inspired his successors but should move us as well.
There are two sources of his inspiration. The first was his personal call by the LORD. We examined this in the commentary for the February 9, 2019 readings. He was given a fiery and unforgettable initiation as a prophet so that he could be the Lord’s instrument. He concludes this ritual with is voluntary acceptance of his personal vocation: Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” “Here I am,” I said; “send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)
The other source was history itself. Ancient peoples were predisposed to see God involved in what we would consider international relations. This would have been critical for the ancient Jews. Both the upper kingdom, Israel, and the lower, Judea, existed between two great empires. Egypt was always in the south and usually either Babylon or Assyria to the north. A king of either kingdom had to play these powers off against each other. In 722/21 BC the Northern Kingdom misread the situation and was destroyed by the Assyrians.
The Assyrians were then the dominant empire and under king Sennacherib sought to consolidate its power. It was inevitable that Jerusalem would be a target. Believing that King Hezekiah had allied himself with the Egyptians he moved against the southern kingdom. His general called out to the people of Jerusalem:
Do not let your God on whom you rely(2 Kings 18: 8a-12)
deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given
into the hand of the king of Assyria.
See, you have heard what the kings of Assyria
have done to all lands, destroying them utterly.
Shall you be delivered?
Have the gods of the nations delivered them,
the nations that my predecessors destroyed,
Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, and the people of Eden who were in Telassar?
Where is the king of Hamath, the king of Arpad,
the king of the city of Sepharvaim, the king of Hena,
or the king of Ivvah?’
Hezekiah, however, supported by Isaiah defied the general and miraculously the siege of Jerusalem was lifted. This is reflected in the Assyrian records as well. The details of both are vague, but most historians believe that the army was driven away by disease most likely either a form of the black plague or cholera. The Jews were not going to quibble about this. They were spared and the LORD was shown as a protector against a more powerful empire.
Hezekiah was the great reforming king of Judea and some scholars speculate that, if the Assyrians were successful, true monotheism would never have developed and the Judaism that is our root would never have developed.
Isaiah was not only a prophet but an advisor to the king and was acutely aware of this reality and it is reflected in the lines of today’s reading:
“Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us!(Isaiah 25:9-10)
This is the LORD for whom we looked;
let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!”
For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain
This was the experience not only of Isaiah but of his people. A saving God was not an abstraction but a living reality.
But why? Were the people saved from Sennacherib merely to prove that the LORD is a mighty God superior to all others? This would have been the usual reaction for the peoples of the day. Note the list of defeated gods recited by the Assyrian general. The LORD is entirely different. He has chosen and protected his people as a means of saving the whole world.
After Isaiah praises the power of the LORD to fulfill his plans (Isaiah 25:1) which means both the destruction of the cities of the insolent (Isaiah 25:2) and the care of the poor (Isaiah 25:3) he makes the astonishing statement:
On this mountain the LORD of hosts(Is 25:6)
will provide for all peoples
A feast of rich food and choice wines,
juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.
The mountain is Mt. Zion where the temple of Jerusalem is built “will provide for all peoples”. That is not just Jews. This was expressed in the most material and unmistakable terms: a banquet of “rich food and choice wines.”
There is also a mystical dimension:
On this mountain he will destroy(Is 25:7)
the veil that veils all peoples,
The web that is woven over all nation
There has been much discussion about the meaning of these words. For some authors, it means spiritual blindness but for others, now I think most, it is connected to the next sentence, “He will destroy death forever.” In any event, the work of the Lord will affect the entire person body and soul.
The powerful intervention of the LORD in the lives of the people reveals that they have been called to be His presence in the world.
This is not isolated in Isaiah even in first Isaiah:
In days to come(Is 2:2)
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Second Isaiah, however, provides the clearest statement:
I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,(Is 42:6)
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you
as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations
God has chosen his people for a purpose beyond themselves. If we are to be considered chosen as well then, we must accept the same vocation and be a light to the world.
What this means has not changed much over the centuries.
Last week Pope Francis issued an encyclical on solidarity, “Fratelli tutti.” Let us quote from two sections and remember Isaiah:
This way of discarding others can take a variety of forms, such as an obsession with reducing labour costs with no concern for its grave consequences, since the unemployment that it directly generates leads to the expansion of poverty. In addition, a readiness to discard others finds expression in vicious attitudes that we thought long past, such as racism, which retreats underground only to keep reemerging. Instances of racism continue to shame us, for they show that our supposed social progress is not as real or definitive as we think(Fratelli tutti, ¶20)
Other cultures are not “enemies” from which we need to protect ourselves, but differing reflections of the inexhaustible richness of human life. Seeing ourselves from the perspective of another, of one who is different, we can better recognize our own unique features and those of our culture: its richness, its possibilities and its limitations. Our local experience needs to develop “in contrast to” and “in harmony with” the experiences of others living in diverse cultural contexts.(Fratelli tutti, ¶142)
That an eighth century BC prophet and a twenty first century pope could speak so similarly should make us question moral progress. Human beings are ingenious in finding new ways to commit old sins. His covenant truly is everlasting. However great and continuous our sin, it is no match for the love and faithfulness of God.