Monday of Week 15 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 1:10-17

Last Saturday we saw Isaiah’s call to be a prophet of God taken from the sixth chapter. We now go to the beginning of the book and from now on will have selected readings from chapters 1-39, which are really part of Isaiah’s own ministry.  The rest of the Book of Isaiah (Parts 2 and 3) is now attributed to other writers.

Isaiah pulls no punches in communicating his message. When he writes: “you rulers of Sodom” and “you people of Gomorroah”, these are not addressed to the peoples of those cities which were long ago destroyed.  He is speaking to the rulers and people of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah of which it is a part.

Today’s reading is a severe attack on religious hypocrisy.  It is part of an oracle presumably uttered in the Temple at the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry. Like Amos (see the recent reading for Wednesday of Week 13), Isaiah castigates ritual divorced from morality. He makes it clear that the sincerity of the worshipper, not the number of his or her religious activities, is most important.

On the face of it, the people seem deeply religious. But he disparages:

…the multitude of your sacrifices…burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts…the blood of bulls
or of lambs or of goats.

God finds no pleasure in a mere multiplicity of offerings.  He does not even expect them:

When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?

Their offerings are not really directed to God but are a form of self-adulation – “How good we are!  How pious and dedicated we are!”

The air filled with the smell of incense has become loathsome to Yahweh.  He has no time for all their “new moons”, which were celebrated at the beginning of every month. Special sacrifices and feasts were part of the observance.

All their efforts at religious celebration and observance are in vain. When they spread out their hands in prayer, Yahweh hides his eyes:

When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen…

Why? Because their “hands are full of blood” – on the one hand, the blood of sacrificial victims, coupled with that of the poor and weak who have been exploited and abused.

At first sight, it all seems to contradict everything we have heard about our merciful, forgiving and compassionate God.  We remember, too, how Jesus taught us to pray incessantly.  But here the prayers are so hypocritical.  They consist of purely external ritual devoid of any real commitment to Yahweh’s will.

Their prayers can never be heard until they emanate from deep within the heart.  Their prayers will be heard when people’s lives are seen to change radically – when they cease to do evil things and concentrate on what is good.

They need to wash themselves clean and put away their misdeeds, which no amount of sacrifices and holocausts will cover up.  They must have only one aim:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean…
learn to do good;
seek justice;
rescue the oppressed;
defend the orphan;
plead for the widow.

When they search for justice and reach out to the oppressed, when they treat the widow and the orphan with justice, love and compassion, then and only then will their sacrifices be truly acceptable to the Lord.

In a society which knew nothing of social welfare, where the needy depended on support from the family, the widow and the orphan were particularly vulnerable to abuse and neglect.  The widow might very well be relatively young, having lost her husband through disease, accident or war.  She had no future as no man would again marry her.  If she was childless, she was of no interest to her father’s family or even her own.  The orphan, too, was left exposed to destitution or having recourse to prostitution, male or female.

Applying this reading to our own situation is not difficult. We can see people devoting a great deal of energy to religious activities such as devotions, pilgrimages and novenas.  We can see them obsessed with keeping commandments and regulations and external observances, but in their daily lives there is often widespread lack of charity, compassion or a willingness to forgive, to tolerate, to understand.  There is often a wide dichotomy between what they proclaim in church and what they do in their daily lives.

“Don’t speak of love; show me!” exclaimed Eliza Doolittle to Professor Higgins in the old play, My Fair Lady.  That could well sum up what God is saying to his people in today’s reading.

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