The prophets, as always, have both the diagnosis and the cure. They are as relevant today as when they were originally given. In fact, much of the New Testament is a continuation of the prophetic tradition.
The passage from Isaiah is like a checklist for the final judgment scene in Matthew 25. Isaiah insists that how we treat others — especially the most weak and vulnerable — is the essential element of our relationship with God. Isaiah and the other prophets have no use for piety and religiosity that is a camouflage for loveless and selfish behaviour. Our encounter with God is not confined to the temple or church — we meet God in those to whom we extend mercy and compassion.
Isaiah’s list sounds familiar: sharing food with those who have nothing, as well as clothing the naked and providing shelter for the homeless. Being involved in efforts to promote justice and freedom for others also seems to be high on Isaiah’s list.
He doesn’t stop there, but moves on to how we talk to and about one another. Pointing the finger and speaking evil about others must go, for it is a poison that destroys human community. We can see the effects of this in our own time. Then, and only then, will God hearken to our prayers and dwell in our midst.
The problem with our societies and religious bodies — and for that matter, individuals — is that there is too much focus on self and far too little on the needs of others. We will be healed when we take the well-being and happiness of others and the common good as a high priority. This is not do-goodism or a liberal agenda, as some might object, but patterning ourselves on God.
All the things Isaiah listed are manifestations of love, for love is practical and hands-on. Since God is love, we will experience God to the extent that we are willing and able to live in a way that mirrors God’s mercy and compassion. Jesus certainly did, and he insisted that his followers do the same.
Paul was certainly aware that eloquent religious rhetoric and God-talk is usually superficial and far too easy to hide behind. By his own admission, he was not an inspiring or effective speaker.
His testimony was the presence of the Spirit and all the things that flow from it. Paul built a community of equals, he imparted practical wisdom for everyday living and he instilled a hope in them for sharing in the glory of Christ.
We know from reading the entire letter that some in the community were not satisfied with that and took the road towards worldly marks of success and power, much to their detriment. Paul’s antidote throughout his letter echoed Isaiah: love, generosity, patience, unity and care for one another.
The thought of making a difference in the world can be daunting and overwhelming. What is one person, or even a group of people, against so much darkness and negativity?
It might be tempting to retreat into oneself and focus on individual spirituality. The two images from the Sermon on the Mount, however, make it very clear that individualistic and self-absorbed spirituality and religious practice will not do.
Those who are true disciples, taking the teachings of the kingdom seriously, are to be a catching and transforming force in the world. It is not so much what they do directly that makes a difference, but the witness they give.
Light begets light and when our lives are beacons of light, others will follow. The only thing required for evil to triumph over the world is for those entrusted with the light to lose their “taste” like the salt in the parable. Indifference, cynicism, laziness and distraction work overtime to turn the spiritual pilgrim from the path of God.At this point in our history, the world needs the salt and light of Christ’s followers more than ever. Are we up to the task? Let us pray that we do not disappoint the Lord.