David Carlson: Shifting the focus

The challenge of the ancient prophets isn’t that they seem out of date, but rather that they speak so forcefully to our current situation.

I was reminded of this earlier this week when a group I belong to directed me for my morning reading to Isaiah 58: 1-12 in the Hebrew Bible. If I was not fully awake when I started to read the passage, I was fully awake when I finished.

The problem that this prophet addressed is one that our country can relate to. The prophet acknowledges that the people he is addressing are highly religious. He notes that the people seek God every day and are eager to know God’s ways.

It sure doesn’t sound like the prophet, speaking for God, would have much to complain about. But God looks below the surface. Yes, on the surface, the people believed that they were pleasing God. After all, they were fasting and doing what they could to publicly show their humility.

Contemporary America also likes to think of itself as a godly nation. For example, a higher percentage of Americans attend weekly worship services than in Europe and elsewhere. But the ancient prophet would be as little impressed with American religiosity as he was with the Israelites of his day.

If there is one great temptation for religious folk, it is the belief that religion is an individual affair. It is easy to believe that what we do in our hearts is all that God cares about. “I show my love for God so that God will bless me and mine.”

The prophet in Isaiah 58 describes this privatized behavior as false religion. This kind of religion is purely inward; what is done is done in order to benefit oneself. Because of that, the prophet of Isaiah 58 doesn’t recommend more fasting, prayer, or reading of sacred scriptures. Instead, the prophet states boldly that all the fasting and other personal pious habits are worthless if we ignore the poor, the hungry, and the stranger. The focus of false religion is only on the inward dimension. But true religion also has an outward dimension, the focus on the neighbor. As is true of breathing, true religion takes in God’s blessings and then sends out those blessings to others.

One of the prophet’s more timely phrases for our current society is that God has had enough of religious people who point their fingers at others and engage in malicious talk. That’s current American culture in a nutshell. We’re all about pointing fingers at those on the other end of the political spectrum and endlessly talking maliciously about them.

The part of the prophet’s message that hit me hardest is its wisdom about human energy. He notes that all the time we spend pointing fingers and speaking maliciously wastes the energy that God gives each of us, energy that God intends us to use in helping the poor and the neediest. We are exhausting ourselves with hate and rancor, missing those who are suffering — in our communities, at our borders, and around the world

And here is the kicker. The prophet promises that if we focus on helping those most in need instead of lashing out at one another, light will overcome our present darkness, and our society will be like a well-watered garden.

A well-watered garden — quite an image. A beautiful garden is not one where only a few plants are thriving while the rest are dying, but where every plant thrives. That’s God’s vision; that’s God’s promise.

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected].