Too often, I fear, folks praise a writer or other public figure as “prophetic” because that public figure speaks moralistically, often aggressively against people that we stand against. Too often such a figure becomes “prophetic” by ignoring the human complexities of why someone might disagree with us, branding them entirely too readily as sub-rational, sub-human monsters, either too stupid or too evil (or both!) to think of as fellow reasoning beings. And too often, when someone comes along and insists on taking those human complexities seriously, in them as well as in us, the partisans among us hold up the “prophetic” figure as someone more pure, morally speaking, because ethical complexity has not polluted the stream of public outrage.
Some close attention to this week’s Isaiah reading presents, at the very least, an alternative notion of what being prophetic might look like, and Walter Brueggemann’s insights into prophets who imagine the world otherwise ring true in the passage. To be sure, Isaiah 55 has no love for the Babylonian world where Israel has languished for a generation. This chapter is the culmination of a hopeful, aggressive, eschatological vision of Israel’s life that begins in Isaiah 40. What starts with “Comfort my people” here reaches its grand finale with “Seek the LORD while he may be found.” And those who hear and believe now know that YHWH has indeed decided to bring the people out from their national grave, assimilated into Babylon as the flesh of the dead becomes part of the dirt in the ground, to take the form of Israel once more, to be remembered and revived as God’s people. Even if a reader of Isaiah thinks that the servant of YHWH has connotations other than a first-century Jew when Isaiah speaks those oracles (as I do), that same reader should see that, when Christ rises from the dead, passages like Isaiah 40-55 take on a richness of meaning that make them Jesus’s words in that moment, even if nobody in the Babylonian exile would have thought that direction.
But this is not a story of the righteous people finally getting their righteous rewards and seeing the wicked drown in their own filth. The truly radical notion in this passage, and the truly prophetic moment, comes when Isaiah, bearing the word of YHWH, envisions a call not only for Israel to return but also for the people who most violently harmed Israel to return with them. YHWH calls for the nations–and Babylon is among those nations if we’re talking about nations that are “wicked” and “unrighteous” (Isaiah 55:7)–to repent, to turn from their ways and return to YHWH.
I can easily enough imagine the protests that might have come in this moment–how could a God who claims to favor us, the oppressed, include the wicked oppressors in this vision? What justice is there if those who have lost their memory as a people have to welcome those who took away that memory? Can we call God good if God’s last word to the suffering is that the violent will enter into the salvation promised in our sorrow?
Well, that’s the difference between the “prophets” of partisan politics and prophets like Isaiah: if we’re honest, we already know what the “prophets” are going to say; they just have a flair for amping up the aggression so that we delight in how they say what we knew they had to say. Isaiah, on the other hand, reminds us that we’re sinners as well as the saved, that the very process of coming to know ourselves as the losers in world history might well have damaged our souls and left us unable to imagine any kind of salvation that extends beyond our own awareness. When we observe Lent, part of the point of fasting is to remember that what normally stands as good, be it food or pastimes or whatever, is to remember that our own notions of what is good are themselves distorted, whether by our own choices or by fates that we never would have chosen, and that divine revelation is not the sort of “prophetic” speech that confirms our narrowness but challenges us and perhaps terrifies us with the wideness in God’s mercy.
Or, to put things in other terms, if YHWH is going to save us, part of that salvation might include repairing the damage of sins, both the ones we’ve done and the ones the world has done to us. And part of the pain of repentance might just include turning loose the sins that we most love.
May this season of fasting disturb us, and may the pain of repentance give way, when the LORD sees fit, to the joy of the redeemed.