Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Isaiah 1:17
The words we have heard in our first reading stand as a warning sound ringing as one begins to explore the book of Isaiah. The themes contained in this passage become quickly familiar as they are found many other times within this book and within the message which the Old Testament prophets were sent to proclaim.
Isaiah’s message is highly controversial and very difficult to tolerate for the people Israel – especially to the powerful and respected individuals in the land. In a nutshell, God criticises his own people, those whom he has chosen, raised and nurtured as beloved children, for not being true towards him, for not abiding to the covenant He made with them. God rejects wholesale the worship and sacrifices of Israel including all the things that He himself had asked for.
Through Isaiah God strongly denounces the injustice and lack of charity that plague Israel as sins – sins that has caused the entire nation to fall into ruin. The prophet criticises the people of Israel for practicing only those commandments that are part of their cultural heritage, part of their tradition ritual tradition and local custom, whilst disregarding to love their neighbours and act justly. Israel is charged of not doing those things which require personal commitment, perseverance, and openness to others in charity.
However, if we look closely, we see that Isaiah’s proclamation is not strictly against the offering of sacrifices and the keeping of festivals – all things that God had himself ordered as part of his covenant. God’s criticism – as always – goes deeper than that. It is about rejecting a kind of worship offered by people who did not live ethically; a kind of detached, loveless worship offered by those who oppressed the poor and taunted or ignored those on the margins of society. The people of God pretended to worship and to make offerings, but in their lives they manifested corruption, hard-heartedness, and indifference to the needs of others. They tried to cover up their actions by abiding to ceremonies and the offering of sacrifices, but God cannot be fooled and he rejects this type of false religion.
The worship and sacrifice demanded by God are something alive that does not end when we live the church building or shut the world tightly outside our inward-looking fellowship groups. The worship and sacrifice demanded by God are something that should echo in our daily living. They should teach us to pursue justice, to work for the relief of the poor, and to be more Christ-like in loving those on the margin of society.
Jesus is our example of true worship and sacrifice to God and only within the context His self-offeringto the Father we celebrate at the altar we may truly Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Today we see an example of what type of religious person God wants us to be in Jesus, in our gospel reading. All too often whilst reading this passage we focus on Zacchaeus, when we really should pay close attention to Jesus. Our Lord reaches out to someone who is ritually unclean, an outcast of Jewish society. Jesus reaches out to a tax collector and does not take “No” for an answer. He spends time with him without judging him. Jesus manifests to Zacchaeus the free love that God has for all his children. Jesus spends time with Zacchaeus and the dramatic change in the man’s life is the result of his interaction with the Lord. It is certainly not the result of a thorough holier-than-thou Bible-bashing, nor of any judgemental criticism.
If we listen to Isaiah’s warning message we must learn to engage both with the liturgy of the Church and the issues of social justice because both of these aspects form a single act of worship. We cannot come to church and remain blind to the injustices of our world. We cannot offer incense and not spread the sweet scent of God’s love in the community. We cannot offer the Mass at God's altar and close our hearts to the outcast of our society.
I leave you with some words from our Archbishop, Justin Welby. If you any of you know me at all they would also know that Archbishop Justin would not usually be my go-to source for quotations; however his words encapsulate extremely well what I have tried to articulate in my homily.
Our task as part of God's church is to worship Him in Christ and to overflow with the good news of His love for us, of the transformation that He alone can bring which enables human flourishing and joy. The tasks before us are worship and generous sharing.