Commentary on Isaiah 1:10-18
Reform School – for Everyone
When I was in junior high school, I remember hearing that one of my schoolmates would not be coming back in the fall. He would have to spend a year in “Reform School.” He had stolen a car, in fact several cars. The next year Tommy was back, attending classes and playing his baritone in my father’s school band. The band was invited to play at the State Fair in St. Paul. They needed someone to drive a truck loaded with band instruments. I recall being surprised when my father asked Tommy to drive the truck to St. Paul. But after all, he had had plenty of experience driving! Dad trusted him. And Tommy did well and went on to graduate. Reform School had done what it was supposed to do: it had re-formed Tommy.
The text from Isaiah assigned for today, the 23rd Sunday of Pentecost, is about re-forming, so it also fits for Reformation Day.
Unit, Structure, Genre, Setting
The unit to be considered should be 1:10-17. Verse 10 is clearly a new beginning and the end of the unit should come after the string of imperative verbs in verses 16 and 17. Verse 18 is then another new beginning.
As to structure, verse 10 is an introductory call for attention. With verses 11-15, the prophet appears as God’s messenger, bringing a complaint from God in first-person “I” form. With verses 15-16, the prophet shifts into a series of imperatives, offering teaching or in Hebrew, torah (verse 10b). Verses 16- 17 could be considered God’s curriculum for reform school, which all God’s people and especially their leaders are invited to attend.
The kings listed in verse 1 locate the setting for the material that follows in the latter half of the eighth century BCE. Since the prophet refers to sacrifices and prayers going on it would seem he was speaking in the midst of a religious service, a “solemn assembly” (verse 13).
Listening to the Text
Verse 10. The text calls people not to “read,” but to “hear” and “listen.” One thinks of a similar interruption of worship by Amos, in Amos 5:21-24. In our time we might think of a voice breaking into a television program with the words “we interrupt this program for an important message…”
Notice that these hearers are addressed as “rulers of Sodom, people of Gomorrah.” That got their attention! The prophet identified them as citizens of the “sin cities” of their day (see Genesis 18 and 19). “What happens in Sodom…stays in Sodom!” may have been one of that city’s advertising slogans!
11-15.Isaiah takes on the role of a messenger from God! In essence, the Lord says: “I don’t like what is going on here. Take it all away! Get rid of these sacrifices and offerings. Out with that incense! Forget these phony ‘holy days.’ They weary me no end! And your prayers? Sorry. I’m not listening! Those hands that you piously stretch out toward heaven are hands covered with the blood of the poor!”
16-17In winding up, the messenger-prophet switches into the mode of a teacher. He had so identified himself in verse 10b. He is teaching here, in the form of imperative verbs, spelling out how God’s people can re-form themselves: “Wash up. Clean up your act. Cut out the evil. Make a difference by doing good. Work for justice. Care for the immigrant, the minority, the homeless, those kids who don’t get breakfast before going to school. Tend to the widows, whose pension checks keep getting cut. Then you’ll start looking like the people of God you are supposed to be.”
Toward Teaching and Preaching
Once I investigated the occurrences of the word “justice” (Hebrew, mishpat, with the related verb shaphat, “do justice”) in the prophetic books and then in the whole Old Testament. What struck me was that most of the contexts where I found that Hebrew noun or verb, I kept running into the same crowd of people: the widow, the orphan, and the poor. Sometimes there was also the sojourner (for today, read “immigrant”) or aged (for today, “senior citizen). Justice, it was clear, had to do with these people!
The typical image for “justice” in our world is the blindfolded lady holding scales: everything is fair, even, balanced. But for the Hebrew prophets, the images are different. They are first of all dynamic: Amos pictures justice as a surging, roaring, rolling, cleansing, river! “Let justice roll down like waters…” (Amos 5:21-24). Micah called for his people to “ do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8). Isaiah points out that doing justice is a grateful response of a people for whom God has already done much. The farmer who has expended much work on his vineyard expects the vineyard to produce good grapes; so the Lord who has delivered and blessed the Lord’s people expects fruits of justice and righteousness (Isaiah 5:1-7).
Finally, Isaiah calls his hearers to be advocates for the powerless, taking up the cause of the powerless, which means the widow (who has no husband), the orphan (who has no parents) and the poor (who have no money; Isaiah 1:16-17). This would include re-forming our laws which discriminate against the powerless (Isaiah 10:1-4) and being pro-active in programs designed to help the helpless, the hapless, the homeless and the hopeless.
The Gospel for the day (Luke 19) tells us how to get started on this reformed, cleaned up life. When Zacchaeus met Jesus, he learned that this Son of Man had come to seek and save losers like he had become. His life changed. Step one was to get rid of half of his “stuff” – and give the proceeds to the poor. And those he had cheated? He would pay them back 400%!
If we begin to understand what Jesus has done for us – we will want to respond in the same way. Today could be a re-forming day for each one of us!