Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Imagine what a land with empathy would look like for them

Figure holding torch under large stone arch
Photo by Linus Sandvide on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

November 13, 2022

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 65:17-25

As we draw to the close of the church year, we traditionally begin to draw upon apocalyptic material. While Isaiah does not have full blown apocalyptic material like the Book of Daniel, Isaiah 56-66 is generally considered to be the predecessor of the full-blown apocalyptic material. Although there is not quite a scholarly consensus on the origins of Isaiah 56-66, most scholars see this material as reflecting the struggles of the remnant who remained in Jerusalem and Judah with the leadership who returned from the Babylonian Exile.

This particular oracle seems to represent the perspective of the remnant left behind in Judah. We have a general sense that conditions were difficult for them. They had to deal with the invading armies that colonized Judah. Then they had to adjust to the leadership who returned to Judah after two generations in Babylon, and we see a lot of conflict between them in these chapters.

This material would appear to demonstrate how the remnant community is trying to deal with all the conflict. They are trying to put the conflict and trauma behind them. They are not focusing on the world as it is, but as it should be. The Book of Isaiah here is quoting a speech from God to Israel. God promises to soon create a new heaven and a new earth, a promise that we often see in apocalyptic literature. The power of this promise comes in the second half of verse 17: “the former things will not be remembered or come to mind.” This is a powerful promise to anyone who has experienced trauma. It may not be the way that modern health care professionals would encourage us to handle trauma, but it is easy to understand, especially in an age without the knowledge of mental health that we have today. 

We see much evidence in God’s speech of the trauma that Israel suffered while living under the oppression of their foreign conquerors. They know that their children have died of malnutrition on account of the injustices under foreign rule (65:20). They know that their labor has been exploited to build the homes of their oppressors rather than their own homes. In short, they live in a land without empathy. While foreign oppressors have been replaced by the leadership who returned home, they still live in a land without empathy. The prophet has to imagine what a land with empathy would look like for them: a land without violence and destruction where the wolf and lamb or the lion and ox will live peacefully together.

The key to this vision is a lack of vengeance. God does not call the remnant in Jerusalem to learn from their oppressors or adopt the way of their oppressor. Isaiah 65:24 alights on what is so badly needed in any society: the need to speak and be heard. Whether we call it gaslighting or prevaricating, few things are as maddening as to cry out in distress and see the situation remain unresolved (65:19). This oracle from Isaiah calls upon us to consider the situation in our country.

In her book Strangers in their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hochschild describes the empathy walls that have been built up in the United States of America. While we know that it is easier for foreign oppressors to construct these walls, the end of the Book of Isaiah is dealing with a situation in which these walls built by oppressors remain in spite of the return of the leadership to Jerusalem. As is so often the case with returning immigrants, things have changed. As Heraclitus told us so long ago, it is never possible to step in the same river twice. The returning leadership have both intellectual and monetary resources that allow them to try to reimpose their religious vision within Jerusalem, but things have moved on and the remnant are trying to hold on to what sustained them under the brutal foreign oppression. This is clashing with what sustained the returning leaders during the exile; hence, we are aware of the dearth of empathy. 

I believe we can see a similar situation in contemporary America. America has only become more polarized since Hochschild wrote her book, as evidenced by the Black Lives Matter Movement and MAGA Movement. Large groups of Americans support these movements, and large groups oppose these movements. We can see that people suffering from the growing and chronic inequality in the United States provide many of the greatest adherents of these movements. There is a desperate need to build empathy bridges between the polarized groups in the United States. That is exactly what we see happening in this oracle from Isaiah. Rather than declaring one group right and punishing the other group, this oracle imagines a world in which both these groups coexist peacefully. They still have their salient characteristics: a lion is still a lion as well as a lamb being a lamb, but they coexist.

We overcome polarization and hatred when we can see the world as God sees it. This oracle would seem to be in dialogue with Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 in which humans are not only made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) but “little less than God” (Psalm 8:5). This mindset unleashed the joyful view of the world found in this oracle and particularly in verses 17-18 where the verb bara’ (to create) is used three times, the same verb as in Genesis 1:1, 21, 27. If we see humans as God does, we will be able to live with the gladness, joy, and delight of verse 18. We will only be able to construct empathy bridges if we have that gladness, joy, and delight of a grace-centered view of the world. The world of sin constructs empathy walls, modern day Towers of Babel. Isaiah 65:17-25 is a clarion call to tear down these empathy walls so that we can see what another person feels.