Our Lady of Guadalupe on the Tilma of Saint Juan Diego
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Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1–2A, 10–11
December 13, 2020
Our passage today is again from the third person to use the name Isaiah. The author chose his name very well as he combines the interests and concerns of both of his predecessors.
First Isaiah began his ministry in 742 BC, the year King Uzziah died. This is significant. Uzziah had reigned for 40 years and had greatly increased the GDP of his kingdom. But he did so by favoring and elite and creating prosperity for some by taking the properties of those not connected to the powerful. This was compounded by his successors who made alliances with Assyria requiring the Judeans to pay vast sums in protection money which the rich managed to avoid further impoverishing the peasants. It is clear why in the very first chapter of Isaiah God says to the people:
Wash yourselves clean!(Isaiah 1:16–17)
Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes;
cease doing evil;
learn to do good.
Make justice your aim: redress the wronged,
hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.
Their sin was injustice, and their penalty will be exile: He prophesied:
Therefore my people go into exile,(Isaiah 5:13–14)
because they do not understand;
Their nobles die of hunger,
and their masses are parched with thirst.
Therefore the nether world enlarges its throat
and opens its maw without limit;
As we saw last week, Second Isaiah lived through this exile. It began in Babylon from c. 600 / 586 BC and should have been the end of the Jewish people. However, in 539 BC the Assyrians offered the Jews who wished to reestablish Jerusalem the opportunity to return as their colonial administration. Babylon was far more comfortable than a devastated Jerusalem, so it was difficult to persuade people to go. Isaiah of Babylon was a recruiter, and he employed a very hard sell. In last week’s reading he encouraged people by telling them that God himself would make a way for them and that Jerusalem itself would proclaim the rebirth:
Get you up to a high mountain,(Isaiah 40:9)
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!
Third Isaiah writes from Jerusalem about 515 BC. It is not going all that well. Jerusalem was truly devastated and the people who returned were forced to work hard under difficult circumstances A good parallel would be the original American colonists on the Mayflower or the early settlers in Jamestown. The difference however was that the Jews were being financed by a mighty empire and in our terms the cost controls left much to be desired. This would be comparable to the “funding issues” in Iraq after the war. Some people were doing very well while others were starving. Isaiah of the restoration needed to address the cause of the situation but also keep hope alive.
He saw the cause as inequality and unfairness.
There were some in the community who would have said that they did their job by restoring temple worship and religious traditions like fasting. Isaiah told them immediately that this not enough.
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:(Is 58:6–8)
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Although there is clearly a change in emphasis from Isaiah of Babylon’s concerns there are similarities as well. The most important of which is the Spirit of God.
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,(Is 42:1)
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations
Thus says the Lord who made you,(Is 44:2–3)
who formed you in the womb and will help you:
Do not fear, O Jacob my servant,
Jerusalem whom I have chosen.
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring.
Yet for third Isaiah, the spirit is sent to the entire Jewish people through the poor and afflicted. Today’s section comprises two different units of the same chapter I61:1-21, 10-11. The section between them is too dense to review in detail. Let us look only at verse 8:
For I, the LORD, love what is right,(Is 61:8)
I hate robbery and injustice;
I will give them their recompense faithfully,
a lasting covenant I will make with them.
So committed is the LORD to justice for the oppressed that he will make a new covenant with the Jewish people only when they have committed themselves to Justice. Their hope and purpose was to be found in covenant and justice.
This is cause for rejoicing in the final verses of this selection Zion/Jerusalem rejoices that the LORD is with her. The presence of the Spirit, as we saw above in the quotes from Isaiah of Babylon, is always creative, always bears fruit. In the context of an agrarian culture this is shown in gardens and seeds. Isaiah expects this to be literally true. The restored Jerusalem will be materially and most especially agriculturally prosperous. But note how this section ends:
So will the Lord GOD make justice and praise(Is 61:11)
spring up before all the nations.
Our world seeks to be restored post-COVID-19. We are all hoping for an economic rebound and a return to prosperity. Yet as the Isaiahs make clear, we must look at what this means. Property and power cannot be just for the few.
Equality of opportunity is usually interpreted a-historically and is almost meaningless, but the basic idea is a commendable worthy goal. There are skill sets that will always be better compensated and luck plays an embarrassing role in life. But this must be tempered by justice. There will always be the rich, but there should never be the destitute.