Here’s how the paradigm usually goes: Israel is in a serious moral and political bind. They’ve disobeyed God and God’s rules. The prophets have a habit of telling us about Israel’s callousness toward widows and orphans. In Isaiah, we read stories of financial speculation, the worship of wealth, and a society devoid of empathy. In Isaiah 1:10-17, the prophet reminds his readers that the worship of God means nothing unless it is accompanied by actions that, “help the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.” God later refers to Israel’s leaders as “thieves” who actively pursue policies of oppression to harm the poorest people in society.
Through a series of bungled diplomatic and military actions, these same leaders set the stage for their country’s deportation to the Assyrian empire. God partnered with certain prophets; some remained behind in Jerusalem while others were taken to Assyria. The purpose of this partnership is to remind the Israelites of God’s promises and how they should have hope for the future. God will not forget about them. At this level, everything sounds fine. It is in the implementation, when we go from the prophetic macro to the theological micro that things start to become strange.
Here’s what I mean. Do you remember the speech at the end of Job? Job wants to know why all of the bad things happened to him. God gives, what I now call, the “Reese Witherspoon” answer. God asks: “Do you know who I am?” “Where were you when I made sea monsters at the foundation of the world?” “How dare you question me with my largeness and you with your smallness?” In trying to give hope to the exiles in Assyria, Isaiah/God comes off a little like God at the end of Job. If bad things have happened to you it’s time to get with the program and realize how small and insignificant you are, how great God is, and wait passively for your divine luck to change. Throw in one of the most quoted verses of the Bible found on posters and memes; you’ve about summed up these ten verses.
I’m sure I don’t get it. I don’t like this reading of the text and the more I read the lesson the more my distaste grows. This seems to be the kind of passage Jesus would have wanted to avoid, ignore, or use to highlight how he’s changing the God ground rules. My first response when I read these verses is this: it makes me feel like I don’t want to be in a relationship with someone who claims they love me but feels the need to remind me how insignificant I am. I know there is no one or nothing like God. I realize we live in a world of powerless, man-made idols. However, do I have to be reminded that I am useless and nothing, like dead flowers or plaguing insects? It’s not good for my self-esteem. It’s only when we’ve been beat down into mental and moral submission that the possibility of hope is offered and the idea of encouragement is extended. I know passive aggressive behavior when I see it. I don’t want to worship a passive aggressive, abusive God. Do we have to be made to feel like feces before God inspires us? I hope not.
This is why there is no screening process or long lecture to sit through before the people of Capernaum meet Jesus (Mark 1:29—39). Jesus is doing a new thing. For the people Jesus is encountering, for them to run, walk, and fly, they simply need to come to Jesus to have all the pieces put back together. There is no lecture; no being told they’re useless or worthless. Anytime the disciples take moves in that direction Jesus always stops them. The people coming to Jesus are made whole, part of the kingdom of God, no questions asked or soliloquies given. That’s the way it ought to be. That’s what the Good News is all about.