Isaiah the Candidate

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September 24, 2016

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.

I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.

See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. –Isaiah 55:1-9 (NRSV)

Back in February, as the Christian world was in a season of preparation for Passion Week, everyone else (it seemed) was immersed in presidential politics. It was Primary season, and the spotlight was particularly focused on the stages filled with Republican candidates. Offered the above passage from Isaiah for a Sabbath’s reflection, I couldn’t help imagining the prophet as a candidate on the debate stage. What would that sound like?

Seven months later, it is still election season. Now the nominees have been chosen, and the rhetoric has reached a fevered pitch as if history hangs in the balance. (Who knows, maybe it does.) Longing for a word that can revive my spirit and nudge me back from the abyss of cynicism, I turn again to these words from the prophet and offer these reflections.

The scene is set at a presidential debate. It’s Isaiah’s turn to speak; he leans into the microphone.

“Ho! Hey! Listen up! You who have no money, come buy bread and wine and milk—without money and without price!”

The camera pans across the patronizing, condescending smirks from the other candidates.

Some interrupt him already: Clueless! Out of touch! Impractical! Socialist!

Isaiah continues anyway and addresses the audience: “Why are you spending your money on non-essentials? Why are you working just to produce more stuff?” Some cheers, some boos, some laughs.

The other candidates will have a heyday with this one. They’ll explain how this proposal is just bad economics. They’ll drop terms like “wealth creation,” “revenue generating,” “capital expansion.”

“You’re mocking the basic values of hard work and compensation that are the backbone of this nation,” they’ll scold him.

Isaiah continues, undeterred. “God says, ‘Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts. Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live.’”

Can you picture it? It is quite a platform from the prophet of God: free bread, milk, and wine for all; less work focused on producing whatever is not as essential as bread; and a call to return to God.

Isaiah, I suspect, would not fare well in contemporary politics. Likely, he would create a splash with something that sounds pretty attractive but would fizzle when people concluded this vision just wouldn’t work.

The problem with hearing a prophet like Isaiah is that we live in the real world. In the real, modern world, free bread and milk and wine for anyone who wants it is not only impractical, it is impossible. And even if it were possible, probably not prudent.

The objections are well known. How many times have utopian projects like this succeeded long term? About zero. Who’s going to tell the “wealth generators” that their stuff is no longer needed? And who’s going to produce the food and drink that all the other people get for free anyway? Much as we might be inclined toward Isaiah’s sort of vision, it does seem a bit out of touch.

So what shall we do with this lofty prophetic message? After all, this is not merely a politician’s platform; this is Scripture, a sacred text, which we faithful have committed ourselves to hearing.

One easy out is the dismissive response that this would have made much more sense back then—because, you know, they had a “theocracy” and all. They had God telling them what to do and helping them work it out.

But on closer reading, it may be a mistake to assume that this prophetic vision seemed any more practical to its first hearers. In fact, it may have fallen on the first audience’s ears in a similar way to our contemporary ears.

This second major section of Isaiah is directed to the exiles living in Babylon. These are Israel’s elite, the educated, the wealthy, the upper class—those like Daniel and his three friends. Their stay in Empire has lasted much longer than they’d expected by now, and they have grown weary in their hopes of return. And as any resident of a foreign culture can attest, part of survival is assimilation, in spite of the accompanying fear that one is abandoning one’s own heritage and homeland.

Assimilate into the empire they did. Economics, to be sure; education, culture, maybe even a bit of religion and diet (after all, Daniel and friends are a story because they are an exception). We certainly can’t blame them for making the best of Babylon. Even the prophet Jeremiah had told them to build houses, plant gardens, and get married—all while praying for the prosperity of Babylon (Jeremiah 29).

However, such counsel, such comfort was always with an asterisk. Don’t get too comfortable in Babylon. Don’t forget your true home completely. Don’t give up hope for return eventually.

Assimilate to survive, yes, but don’t lose yourself in the process. Participate in the economics and politics of Empire as necessary, but don’t let Empire capture your heart and soul.

What a difficult line to walk. I suspect it was no easier when the prophet showed up with a vision that seemed so out of touch with the everyday reality in which they are immersed, so counter to the common sense that was now deeply ingrained in them. Free bread, less work, fewer products? Get real.

But listen closely and you begin to see that Isaiah is up to more than offering free food. (Note well: more than free food, but certainly not less than free food.) The picture the prophet paints is not just any free bread and free water/milk/wine that God is offering. These are weighted symbols with a history.

This is manna, bread from heaven given in the wilderness.

This is water from a rock.

This is a land flowing with milk and honey whose grapes are as big as its giants.

In other words, this offer of bread is not merely an alternative to a hard workday; it is a reminder of the people’s story, a reminder of their truest identity. These hearers of Isaiah are a People, rescued from the grips of Empire, formed in the wilderness, and called to witness to the goodness and grace of YHWH by being a people of compassion and shalom.

This story is recapitulated in Isaiah’s reference (verse 3) to King David and God’s covenantal chesed, God’s steadfast, faithful love for him.

The story is present in Isaiah’s call (verses 6-7) to seek the Lord, to abandon wicked ways, to return to the Lord and live, because God is “generous with forgiveness” (CEB), God will “abundantly pardon” (NRSV).

At its heart, this lofty vision of Isaiah is a plea to the people to remember who they really are, because someday they will return home and they will need to remember how to operate in a God-patterned community.

So in the midst of Empire and its culture of conquest, production, and exploitation, Isaiah calls the people of God to remember what it looks like to be a rescued people of God. It means trusting that God will provide for their needs, not Empire. It means operating on an economy of abundant pardon, generous forgiveness, and compassionate, faithful love, not an economy of scarcity and competition.

With this retelling of their story, Isaiah reminds the people, God’s thoughts are not their thoughts, nor are God’s ways their ways.

I find this well-worn verse deeply meaningful its context. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (verse 8). Far from a copout response to difficult questions about life and God, this word from God is a specific, concrete reminder to those called by God that they—we—have a different story, an alternative identity, from the one handed to us by the Empire in which they, and we, reside. Theirs, and ours, is a story anchored in the steadfast love and generous forgiveness of God, which plays out in those (im)practical realities like free (or affordable!) bread, meaningful work, and delightful feasts for all.

But where to begin, when the prophet's vision still seems impossible? Where do we turn when our souls have been stirred by the prophet but the reality of the present seems to suffocate the soul?

How about we start with reminding one another of our sacred story, our truest identities: Our home is with a God who operates on abundance, generosity, compassion, forgiveness, and faithful love.

And I suspect, working backward from Isaiah’s vision, that when we choose:
forgiveness rather than revenge
generosity rather than fear of scarcity
faithful love rather than quid-pro-quo affection
compassion and empathy rather than judgment

—when we embrace this alternative economy in our individual and communal lives, we will find such choices leading us down the path toward a world in which there is also bread for all, a world in which there is peace, wholeness, shalom for all. And all will finally be at home.

 

Vaughn Nelson is Pastor for Discipleship and Nurture at the La Sierra University Church in Riverside, California.

Photo Credit: FreeImages.com / Martin BOULANGER

 

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