“Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Isaiah 1:16-17
The prophet Isaiah is probably best known for the beautiful words we hear in the seasons of Advent and Christmas: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; a child has been born, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But Isaiah, like all prophets, also has words of judgment and warning for us. In the very first chapter of his book, Isaiah rebukes the people of Judah harshly. They are, he says, evil and corrupt: utterly estranged from God.
How have the Judeans earned this scathing indictment? They spend too much money on churchy things: burnt offerings and incense. They require the local farmers to attend too many festivals, a hardship, because time away from the fields meant a loss of preciously needed income. They have an excess of food, and enjoy prosperous ease, while forgetting the poor and needy.
The people of Judah have gotten extravagant. They’re failing to look after those who are most vulnerable among them. The prophet counsels them: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good: seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”
We have all too much in common with the Judean people, and it’s hard to enjoy this scriptural lecture when we realize it’s directed at us, as well. But dare I say that this kind of lecture is often good for us? Our encounters with the Living God should be powerful and challenging enough to slowly free us from all of the lies we have been taught, from all of the injustices we are complicit in, and from all of the habits that are harmful to us. Our encounters should liberate us to love God and our neighbor with all our hearts, and minds, and strength; and our neighbors as ourselves.
Wherever we are on our journey, God invites us to try again, to take one more step towards humility, towards simplicity, towards compassion, towards justice. What step could you take? What freedom could you embrace?
God, embolden us to understand where we have gone wrong. Awaken our trust in your mercy. Through your grace, may we slowly become who you created us to be, ceasing to do evil, and learning to do good. Amen.