A semi-regular attempt (in other words, as I have time) to explore the interaction between God and the adolescent world, especially the connection between theory and praxis (otherwise known as practical theology). Primary emphasis will be given to the role of the church (and especially the emerging church) in this process.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Holiness as Service

Looking at another passage last night - Isaiah 58:1-12. It can be divided into two opposing sections - verses 1-5, and 6-12.

In the first five verses, the author, speaking for God, describes the religious people of his day. Notice all of the good things they are doing:
* They seek Yahweh every day
* Eagerness characterizes their desire for God
* They seek Yahweh's will re. their decisions so they will be just
* They want God to be near

In short, these were the "holy" people of this time.

And yet...God calls them out, shouting that they are in rebellion against Him. What was the source of their rebellion? Self-interest. They were only concerned with their own world.

Remember the historical context here. Jerusalem is in shambles, most everything (including the temple) having been destroyed a few years earlier. There are some who have learned to use the situation to their advantage. These folk have managed to build nice homes, and enjoy a good life, while all around them are others who are poor, destitute, homeless.

It's not enough that they enjoy their prosperity while everyone around them is hurting. They then proceed to complain to God, because He doesn't seem to be listening to them. They talk about it in terms of fasting. One commentator helped illuminate this for me when he wrote that "in the Semitic way of speaking, 'fasting' meant more than refraining from eating. The word stood for all that was implied in a self-righteous religiosity that divorced faith from love."(1)

It's into this situation that God responds. He makes it plain that their fasting is a sham. Their religious actions have no impact on the rest of their lives. Their fasting is empty, devoid of life-changing impact. In contrast, God offers up a different view of fasting, the type of fasting that most please Him. This fasting would not only begin to redefine how people worshipped, but it would also redirect their focus from inward to outward. This would result in three things (see verses 6-12).

NOTE: The following is probaly more radical than you (or I) am comfortable with.

* "To loose the chains of injustice, and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke" (58:6). The religious folk used their position to take advantage of those around them. Yahweh reminds them that if they were to be truly holy people, it would also require that they be holy in all of their relationships: personal, work, school, church, community. Holiness can't be relegated to just the religious areas of our life--if it doesn't impact our whole life, then it's not really holiness.

* "Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter, when you see the naked, to clothe them..." (58:7a). The word "share" in this passage is powerful. It literally means "to break in two." So what Yahweh demands is this: if you have a loaf, divide it equally and give half of it to those who are hungry. If you see someone who is homeless, let her come into your home and live in half of it. Look through your closet and give away clothes to those who need them. (Not just the clothes you don't wear or like--make sure the person is dressed as nice as you are!)

* "and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?" (58:7b) Yahweh isn't talking about physical blood relatives, but rather the fact that the people were refusing to acknowledge the need of their fellow Hebrew brothers and sisters. In other words, they conveniently turned a blind eye to the needs of those around them.

In short, what Yahweh is telling the people is that part of being holy is the cultivation of a spirit of generosity where we eagerly seek to minister to others because Christ first ministered to us. The holy life, therefore, is a life of service.

I love the way Henri Nouwen describes this type of life:
"The word compassion is derived from the Latin words pati and cum, which together mean 'to suffer with.' Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, enter into places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out with those in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human." (2)

Scripture emphatically links our love of God and love of neighbor: "If anyone boasts, 'I love God,' and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won't love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can't see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You've got to love both" (1 John 4:20-21, The Message).

It is not possible to fulfill the second command (our love of neighbor) in isolation from the first (love of God). We do not love best when we try to love out of our own resources or ability. Neither, however, can we fulfill the first command (loving God) if we fail to let that love overlow to our neighbor. They are inextricably linked together.

I admit it--this doesn't describe my life very well, and I am convicted by what God calls us to do. I want to learn to love others the way God loves me--a love that treats others with equity, dignity, patience, and respect. I want to learn to practice a love that exhibits generosity, magnanimity, the willingness to give others the benefit of the doubt. I eagerly desire to develop a compassion that feels the pain of those on the margins, the poor, the lost, and the hungry because I am there with them. I want to know this type of holy love which works itself out in the way we love each other.

How 'bout you?

(1) Knight, George A.F. The New Israel: Isaiah 56-66, in International Theological Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 22.

(2) Nouwen, Henri J.M., McNeil, Donald P., and Morrison, Douglas A. Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life. New York: Image Books, 1982, p. 4.


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