Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- In an age of ‘personalised religion’, with the view that religion and politics don’t impinge upon each other, I find today’s Readings very stimulating.
First Isaiah (35:1-6.10) of the 8th century BCE is in fact a highly political piece of writing. This vehemently anti-court prophet wrote to chastise the king and state and warn of the dangers to come which would implode with terrible violence, destroying his nation. The fact that we, and Judaism, retain the work of this man, and not that of his political opponents, suggests that at very least the warnings he gave were seen to be near enough to the mark to be retained down through the centuries. In the passage assigned for today, we have gone beyond Isaiah’s record of the wrath and punishment inflicted (as he saw it) by God on a faithless Israel, and come out the other side, to a time of a cleansed, renewed and restored nation. I am intrigued, that in his vision of a restored Zion or Jerusalem Isaiah significantly does not link this to the city, the court or even the temple, but chooses a quite alternative world. He writes of the blossoming of the dry scrublands after rain. Now only those of us brought up in semi-desert zones, as I was on the High Veldt, can truly buy into what he means. Not for him the welcome rain after a dry spell, as in an English summer, rather the severe droughts of land deprived of rain for years, and where a truly gigantic downpour would literally see the land carpeted with flowers almost overnight. In such environments the land waits for rain, its seeds dormant until the right moment when they will burst into life. Isaiah speaks of the return to worship of Yahweh as a time of rebirth, a new world after the devastation of Assyrian occupation and terror. It is noticeable that he also speaks of the ‘Splendour of Carmel and Sharon’, the great plains area of coastal Northern Israel and rich agricultural territory, and the route north to the conquest of the Lebanon. All in all, he evokes an expansionist, wealthy time for his nation, one of wealth and good food.
Yet our prophet does not place this new found prosperity into the hands of rich merchants or a restored and powerful court, but rather relates it to the healing of illness and disease, things which throughout antiquity blighted the lives of the poor. Any ancient healing shrine, whether pagan or Jewish or even later Christian, produces a plethora of small images of the eye. Lack of basic hygiene and medicines meant that blindness was a very common complaint for ancients; things such as infections, cataracts and quite curable things, were illnesses which removed people from the productive chain and rendered them a burden to their families, as did leprosy. We have to understand that disease in these days meant division and death to families, heartbreak and social collapse, which quite possibly opened the route to slavery for those left vulnerable, too old or too young to care for fields, and the small trades of a stricken parent. First Isaiah spoke for and to these marginalised and vulnerable people, and his message clearly trod on the toes of the rich and powerful for whom he has very little time at all.
It should not surprise us then that when Jesus adopted First Isaiah as among his favourite prophets, albeit significantly transformed, he appealed to a stream of thought long known for its antagonism to court and wealthy city authorities, among them the scribes and Pharisees. In our Gospel (Matthew 11:2-11) we meet Jesus communicating with another dissident prophet, John the Baptist, who imprisoned by Herod Antipas sent his supporters to enquire into Jesus’ identity as Messiah. Significantly Our Lord adopts part of our quote from Isaiah 35 as his proof of eligibility. He recalls the healing God brings to his people, but in a dramatic departure from Isaiah deliberately omits all talk of the vengeance of God. Clearly, right from the start of his ministry, Jesus would be a political figure but not a militant Messiah; and he would consistently maintain this rejection of violence throughout, unlike Isaiah.
Yet Matthew has a favourite word for Jesus, ‘skandalon’. Jesus would scandalise many as he ripped apart their cosy notions of the God-human relationship, both in what he said and did, and in his own body finally dying sacred and profane as crucified Son of God and redeemer of humanity. Sadly the English translators consistently lose the power of this Greek word, as they alter it to a tepid ‘lose faith’ or ‘stumbling block’ which gives nothing of Matthew’s vigour and clout to our texts. As such, the English deprives Jesus of his political significance. This is why, deliberately aligning himself with John’s challenging and prophetic call, Jesus asks a series of questions of his interlocutors.
‘What did they go out into the wilderness to see John for?’ The reed shaken by the wind is a reference to the coin of Herod Antipas who used it on coin minted in Tiberias in honour of the new city the king had built in the Emperor’s honour. Similarly he dismisses the idea that people went to John because of his fine clothes, which were to be found in palaces and court. I hope by now that we can agree that these were not benign comments on the part of Jesus, but divisive, critical comments on a court and temple he had long decided were beyond saving. Of course, by the time we meet them in Matthew around 80CE the temple was in ruins and most of the elite dead or scattered. No, I think we must conclude that like John the Baptist Jesus was a highly politicised figure. He was a scandal, that was why he was killed and that is why we worship him as God. This Advent, we need to come to terms with the difficult and uncomfortable figure of Jesus, King of the Jews and Saviour of the world; he is not to be domesticated or made to fit our agendas, he is what he always was, God’s answer to a fallen world in need of redemption.