Sunday, February 5, 2017

What Is Religion For?

What is religion for?  What difference does it or can it make in our lives?  That seems to me to be the question at the heart of the texts from Isaiah and Matthew that we heard this morning.  They are about our relationship to the Law – narrowly speaking, the Torah or teaching of the Pentateuch, the five books attributed to Moses – more broadly, the whole constellation of religious observance in text and ritual.  Why bother with any of it?

It is a good question, which our texts themselves take seriously.  Both the prophet in Isaiah and Jesus in Matthew are critical of religious observance emptied of meaning, severed from its real purpose.  They invite us to consider our own religious practice and its relationship to our common life.

Let’s begin with our text from Isaiah.  A little history is required to understand its context.  In 598 BC, the Babylonian Empire conquered the Kingdom of Judah, laying siege to Jerusalem and destroying the temple.   As a matter of policy to undermine the possibility of future resistance, the Babylonians forcibly exiled the leadership class of Jerusalem:  the aristocracy, priests, and lawyers.  In an attempt to divide and conquer, the Babylonians also forced migration of other peoples to Judah to mix the population.  Some sixty years later, Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon, and in 538 BC issued an edict allowing the exiled Jews to return to their homeland. 

The passage we heard today dates from the period after the exile.  The exiled elites have returned to Israel and have begun the process of rebuilding.  The second temple was dedicated in 515 BC, but the restoration work was neither easy, nor cheap.  The experience of those who went into exile and the experience of those who remained in the land were very different.  The leadership class in exile was exposed to a foreign, cosmopolitan culture, from which they both drew new insights and also sought to differentiate themselves to maintain their identity.  Those who remained in the land did their best to retain the old ways in the midst of devastation, while also struggling to accommodate a new immigrant population.  Now, they had to find a way to forge a common life together.  But, according to the prophet, it isn’t going well. 

Conflicts arose about economic and immigration policy.  The returning elites set about restoring their social and economic privilege at the expense of the workers rebuilding the Jerusalem.  There were also debates about now to treat mixed marriages and the influx of foreigners in the land.  Many hearkened back to the “good old days” before the exile and wanted to expel the foreigners so that “Israel could be Israel again,” although not everyone agreed with this perspective.[1]

An important part of reweaving a common life had to do with shared religious observance, including the reinstitution of the temple cult.  Fasting was practiced as part of the ritual of mourning, and on the Day of Atonement.  Some folks are griping that their ritual fasting isn’t getting the results they want.[2]  Times are still hard, and the return from exile hasn’t fulfilled expectations.  God’s promised salvation still seems far away.

The prophet reminds the people that observance of the Law is moral as well as cultic.  He caricatures their ritual observance as hypocrisy, fasting even as they argue and fight and oppress their workers.[3]  The self-sacrifice of ritual fasting is a preparation for, and sign of, a deeper self-sacrifice for the sake of the poor and the oppressed.  Religious observance not only requires the restoration of walls and streets, but also the restoration of justice and mercy.

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom like the noonday.[4]

Cultic observance does not earn God’s salvation, but rather prepares us to become the kind of people willing to practice the justice that is the foundation of life with God and one another.  Cultic observance provides a set of practices that open our hearts to the righteousness of God manifest in a common life of justice and mercy.  Religious practices without justice for the poor and oppressed are empty and meaningless.  Justice without religious practices is superficial and unsustainable because it is severed from its rootedness in the wisdom and power of God.[5]

Part of what makes Isaiah and the prophetic tradition so important is that it provides a self-critical moment in the life of the religion of Israel, reminding those of us who are its heirs of the danger of forgetting what religion is for in the first place.  The greatest single resource against religious hypocrisy is the Bible itself.

Jesus is among the greatest defenders of the religion of Israel against the temptation of hypocrisy.  In his teaching on the Sermon on the Mount, he is emphatic that he has not come to abolish the Torah, the Law, but rather to clarify its true meaning.  Notice that he considers all of it – the cultic and the moral observance – as valid.  Jesus is an observant Jew.[6]  The issue is how to observe the Law, and why we bother in the first place.

Recall that Jesus began his teaching with the Beatitudes, defining the attitudes and attributes of those who belong to the kingdom of heaven.  “Heaven” is a typically Jewish synonym for “God,” a circumlocution to avoid pronouncing the sacred Name.  It does not refer to a place, but rather to a relationship.  Those who are “with God” are like this and do these things. 

The Beatitudes culminate in the willingness to sacrifice one’s self for the sake of justice, to endure persecution for the sake of righteousness.[7]  This echoes the prophet’s teaching in Isaiah, where God proclaims:

Is not this the fast that I choose:  to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from our own kin?[8]

There is nothing strikingly new in Jesus’ teaching.  He is firmly in the prophetic tradition of Israel, which is itself a recapitulation of the covenant tradition spelled out in the Torah, but in a new key for a new situation.  Religious observance is for the sake of justice, the foundation of community life with God.

Just as the prophet declares that when you do justice, “then your light will break forth like the dawn,” so Jesus will say to those who embrace the beatitudes, “You are the light of the world.  A city built on a hill cannot be hid.”[9]   Religious observance is in the service of the creation of a city, a community, a people with God that is illuminated by the righteousness of God manifest in a polity founded on justice and mercy.  It is all about righteousness.  The key line is this:

For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.[10] 

Jesus, it appears, is engaged in a controversy with the scribes and the Pharisees
about righteousness, or justice.  The controversy is not about whether or not to observe the Torah, but how and why we do so.  In a provocative argument, the Jewish scholar, Daniel Boyarin, describes it this way:

The Pharisees were a kind of reform movement within the Jewish people that was centered on Jerusalem and Judea.  The Pharisees sought to convert other Jews to their way of thinking about God and the Torah, a way of thinking that incorporated seeming changes in the written Torah’s practices that were mandated by what the Pharisees called “the tradition of the Elders.”  The justification of these reforms in the name of an oral Torah, a tradition passed down by the Elders from Sinai on, would have been experienced by many traditional Jews as a radical change, especially when it involved change the traditional ways that they and their ancestors had kept the Torah for generations immemorial.  At least some of these pharisaic innovations may very well have represented changes in religious practice that took place during the Babylonian Exile, while the Jews who remained “in the land” continued their ancient practices.  It is quite plausible, therefore, that other Jews, such as the Galilean Jesus, would reject angrily such ideas as an affront to the Torah and as sacrilege.[11]

Therefore, according to Boyarin,

Jesus’ Judaism was a conservative reaction against some radical innovations in the Law stemming from the Pharisees and Scribes of

What this suggests is a continuing tension, alluded to already in Isaiah, between those Jews who went into exile and those who remained in the land, and their different ways of conceiving the relationship between cultic and moral observance of the Torah.  Jesus emerges as a defender of the earlier, pre-exilic tradition.  He seeks to preserve the social justice core of the tradition against innovators whose teachings threaten to obscure that core. 
This is a tantalizing suggestion, but, whatever its merits, it underscores that what we have in Matthew’s Gospel is a thoroughly intra-Jewish debate about the purpose of religion.   Religious observances make us vulnerable to God so that we can be infused with God’s righteousness, creating a community founded on justice and mercy.  That is what the kingdom of heaven, life with God, is all about. 

Religious practices without justice for the poor and oppressed are empty and meaningless.  Justice without religious practices is superficial and unsustainable because it is severed from its rootedness in the wisdom and power of God.  Or, as one of my favorite bumper stickers puts it, “If you love Jesus, then work for justice.”  Let the people of God say, “Amen.”

[1] Foreigners were “separated from Israel” – though we are not told precisely how this ethnic cleansing was implemented (Nehemiah 13:3).  Mixed marriages were condemned and foreign wives and children were “sent away,” with cursing, beatings, and the pulling of hair, though we are not told where they were sent (Nehemiah 13:23-31).  This was a problem, apparently, among both returning exiles and those who had remained in the land, including the priestly families (Ezra 9:1-4; 10:6-44).
[2] Isaiah 58:3.
[3] Isaiah 58:3-4.
[4] Isaiah 58:9b-10.
[5] This is a wisdom and power very different from that of the “rulers of this age,” according to St. Paul (I Corinthians 2:1-8).
[6] Matthew 5:17-18.
[7] Matthew 5:10-11.
[8] Isaiah 58:6-7.
[9] Matthew 5:14.
[10] Matthew 5:20.
[11] Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York:  The New Press, 2012), pp. 103-104.
[12] Boyarin, p. 104.

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