image - baroque painting
Widows really should not be asked to impoverish themselves for the sake of the institutions of the religious community.
Paulus Lesire, “The pennies of the poor widow”

One of the texts in the Revised Common Lectionary for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost is Isaiah 1:1,10-20. The text is an accusatory speech by God, in the context of what sounds like a long legal argument, that the prophet Isaiah relays to the people of Judah and particularly of Jerusalem in the 8th century BCE. Isaiah’s time is a troubled and troubling time; the international relations of the period are threatening and precarious; all is not well domestically, either – according to the reports of the prophets of the time, Isaiah and others, there is pronounced inequality, commercial life is rife with rapacious practices and dishonest dealings, employers exploit their workers and prey upon the desperate and the disadvantaged … if only we could say “that was then, this is now,” because the word Isaiah relays to the people of Judah from the God of Israel makes it clear that God is fed up with what the people are doing.

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 (modified NRSV)

The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem

in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. …

Hear the word of the Holy God, you rulers of Sodom!

Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?

says the Holy God.

I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams

and the fat of fed beasts.

I do not delight in the blood of bulls,

or of lambs, or of goats.

When you come to appear before me,

who asked this from your hand?

Trample my courts no more;

bringing offerings is futile,

incense is an abomination to me.

New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation –

I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

Your new moons and your appointed festivals

my soul hates;

they have become a burden to me,

I am weary of bearing them.

When you stretch out your hands,

I will hide my eyes from you;

even though you make many prayers,

I will not listen;

your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;

remove the evil of your doings

from before my eyes;

cease to do evil,

learn to do good;

seek justice,

rescue the oppressed,

defend the orphan,

plead for the widow.

Come now, let us argue it out,

Says the Holy God.

Though your sins are like scarlet,

they shall be like snow;

though they are red like crimson,

they shall become like wool.

If you are willing and obedient,

you shall eat the good of the land;

but if you refuse and rebel,

you shall by the sword be devoured;

for the mouth of the Holy God has spoken.

Has this ever happened to anyone here? We’ve made a firm decision to go on that diet, we’re determined, we’ve picked out the diet, we’ve thought through exactly what we’re going to do and we’ve gotten good with it, so now we’re going to start … Monday. So on Sunday, at the church pitch-in picnic … we say “yes” to the second helping of potato salad, and the extra fork-full of pulled pork, and we add the butter to the corn on the cob, and we thank God for that slab of Penelope’s legendary pecan pie, and we slap some whipped cream on it for good measure. Then on Monday morning, when we step on the scale, we’re looking at an even larger number than before, and we think “Why did I do that? I know better!”

Psychologists may have an answer for us: we may have fallen prey to something called  “moral self-licensing.” According to Anna C. Merritt, Daniel A. Effron and Benoit Monin, in a 2010 article in Social and Personality Psychology Compass titled “Moral Self-Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad,” studies show that sometimes just thinking of ourselves doing something good in the future makes us feel “licensed” to do something more questionable right now. Researchers have also found that when they ask people to describe themselves or tell the stories of their lives, using positive moral terms – “I was generous,” “I was kind” – or to remember something helpful they’ve done in the past, they are actually less likely to donate a small amount of money to charity. (You can read the study online at here and a follow up study by Effron and Conway here) When we thought of ourselves “being good” by starting that diet on Monday, we gave ourselves a “license” to eat more than we normally would on Sunday. Then on Monday, when we’ve “been good” by sticking to our celery sticks and cottage cheese at lunch, we may decide we “deserve” that ice cream sundae for dessert at dinner. And on it goes …

Unfortunately, dieters who get caught in this distorted way of thinking have a hard time making any progress. Dieticians will tell us that what really works, if losing weight and getting fit is our goal, is consistent practice, day in, day out, in all kinds of situations. A lot of dieticians will even encourage their clients to stop thinking about food in terms of “good” and “bad,” and talk about “planned” or “chosen” food instead, just to avoid triggering that moral self-licensing effect.

If we can relate to this, we can probably relate to the people of Judah in Isaiah’s day; they seem to have fallen into the moral self-licensing trap big time.

Evidently, on official worship occasions they go all out. The worship of the 8th century, in the Temple of Solomon, centrally involved animal sacrifice. These people of Judah and Jerusalem are dutifully, even lavishly, bringing their well-fed, ritually appropriate animal offerings to the temple, they are honoring the feasts and fasts, they are showing up at the new moons with their offerings and burning the fat of the sacrifices. All of this proper practice is meant to signify a number of things: repentance for sin; thanks for God’s favor in the past; devotion to the covenant relationship with God. It’s worship: the acknowledgement of their relationship to God.

Piety, devotion, attention to the relationship to God is a good thing … except that God points out that all this piety, devotion and attention is absent outside the sanctuary, on regular business-as-usual days. In fact, the “good” people who are doing all this worshipping on special occasions are giving themselves way too much license to do “bad” things the rest of the time, leading God to compare them to the citizens of the famously unkind cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Instead of feeding and caring for the widows and orphans, the most vulnerable members of the society, they are fattening their own purses at the expense of the poor. It’s a “dog eat dog” world out there, and they’re doing their best to be the eaters rather than the eaten.

But that means that their worship, meant to be an acknowledgement of God that works to register repentance and clear the way for transformation, is not working as intended; it is working more like that “moral self-licensing” instead. It has become an affordable and acceptable substitute for the more challenging, costly, consistent practice of looking out for the welfare of their neighbors day in and day out, sharing their bread with the hungry, “rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan, and pleading for the widow.” From God’s point of view, this renders worship the opposite of a “good thing,” renders it unbearable and nauseating.

There’s a cruel irony in this particular vicious cycle. The text alludes to it when it points out that the cattle being brought to the temple altar are well-fed, fattened up. These sacrificial animals seem to have been eating well … maybe better than some of the oppressed and undefended widows and orphans. Rather than feeding these offerings, God seems to be saying, feed your neighbors. Rather than imagining you’re feeding me – me, as if I’m in any kind of need – take care of the needs of the people around you, who are made in my image, and whose need is visible and real. God is saying, in essence, look, I haven’t asked for and don’t want worship that’s being used as a substitute for covenant character; what I want is the covenant character it was meant to cultivate … words and deeds that match, behavior on day one that matches behavior on day two, behavior “before me” that matches behavior before your neighbor who is made in my image.

But while God is fed up with the moral self-licensing that’s going on, God is not ready to give up on these people – that’s the real point of this warning, it’s ultimate point. Let’s be reasonable, let’s “argue it out,” says God … yes, the situation looks terrible for you, but it’s not impossible; yes, you’re in bad shape, your sins are as red as the blood of all that red meat, but there’s hope.

The hope, the solution God is offering here, is precisely the relationship that worship was designed to facilitate in the first place … God really is ready to forgive, and that forgiveness would free people up for the “willingness” and the “obedience” that God knows would be in their best interest in the first place. “You will eat of the good of the land,” God says, if that happens. Naturally, because there will be good in the land to eat of. There will be good in the land because, then as now, justice is God’s prescription for peace and prosperity. In the Biblical vision, when the devotion of the people of God is consistent and practical, when it includes following God’s instructions to ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met, and that everyone is properly taken care of, everyone will enjoy the well-being, the full peace that is God’s “shalom.” That’s the world God’s forgiveness is meant to free people to pursue, and to produce.

But if people continue to treat their well-orchestrated formal worship as “good behavior” that gives them a license to indulge their “dog eat dog” appetites back in the “real world,” they will make that real world into the kind of ravenous, dangerous place in which the least are always in peril, and in which eventually someone with an even bigger appetite will come along and reduce them to the least. One way or another, justice will be done … but the better way, the way of peace is possible, and God is urging them to choose that way.

Isaiah was relaying this speech to people in the 8th century BCE, but a similar choice seems to lie before us in this century. Some of us are still tempted to use church attendance and church responsibilities as a tool for moral self-licensing that will let us avoid the challenge of confronting privilege in our workplace or block the call to contribute to those in need. On the other hand, some of us are eager to pose the opposite question, “isn’t it more important for us to contribute to charity, to work for justice, to do things for other people, than to come to church on a Sunday morning?” Posing the question that way still imagines the false separation between life and worship God is complaining about in this text, just from a different angle.

A better way to ask the question might be “how can I worship God?” or “how can I express my love for God …” here and now. Because if we ask ourselves that question, we’re going to be led to focus our attention, and our understanding of worship, on the kind of balanced nourishment our own souls, and the souls of those around us, need.

The dieticians will tell us that when it comes to getting fit, we won’t help ourselves by skipping breakfast, or by cutting out a whole food group, like carbs. We need all the macronutrients, in healthy balance, with consistency … we even need a little fat from time to time.

The same is true for worship – if we can think of worship as acknowledging the reality and significance of God by participating in activities that God asks for and approves. We can avoid the pitfall of moral self-licensing, in either direction, by asking ourselves every day, not just Sunday or Monday – “how can I worship God here, now?” There will be times when that question will lead me towards participating in the ritual life of the community. There may be times it leads me to take the time to challenge a thoughtless Facebook meme, and face the pushback I shrink from in doing that. There may be other times it leads me to give a different quality of attention to that person I work with who interrupts my train of thought and who I too often greet with a terse “what is it, now?” or to hold back that almost rude comment to the hapless telemarketer … but whatever it leads me towards, asking the question “how can I express my love for God here and now?” opens me to the life of worship as it was intended – as the cultivation of consistent love of God and neighbor.

That practice clearly doesn’t relieve me of the burden of making choices … none of us has enough money to give to every charity that sends us a piece of mail, none of us has a large enough grocery budget to feed all of our neighbors. But the practice of asking that question can bring a new degree of attention to our daily lives, our daily choices, and our daily interactions with the people around us, who are made in the image of God and whose souls, as do our souls, as do all human souls, crave the nourishment of love and justice.