This should come as a surprise to no one, but I really like liturgy. In fact, the Anglican tradition’s rich, sensual liturgical life is what beckoned me into the peculiar and frequently bewildering relationship that eventually brought me here to SSJE. That is, the peculiar and bewildering relationship with Jesus Christ.
And so it should also not surprise anyone that this morning’s reading from Isaiah has from time to time arrested me—particularly as I have almost always encountered it within the context of Christian liturgical action—that is, corporate worship.
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.
The prophet communicates the lament of a God who seems to detest our corporate gatherings in his Name—indeed, a God for whom such liturgical assemblies have become a burden, a cause of sorrow, a point of fracture rather than relationship.
And of course I say this, standing at an ambo, in one of the central movements of a liturgical exercise, dressed in the garments of a community that understands its life as centered primarily on the offering of liturgical worship as an expression of love and a God whom Isaiah gives voice. A surface level reading of things would doubtless leave an observer wondering why I am standing here at all; indeed, why any of us are here at all.
I don’t think Isaiah is attempting to demolish the human desire for these kinds of liturgical exercises. He is the bearer of a tradition that believes in the goodness and efficacy of worship—for he stands within the lineage of figures like Moses, whose communities understood worship’s proper place within the fabric of human life.
But, like all good things, even worship can distract us from what is really at stake. At its most innocent, it can leave us overly attentive to the minutia of liturgical action. At its most dangerous (and I gather this is the point of Isaiah’s divine lament) is can close off our hearts to the One whom worship names, trapping us in patterns, formulas, and habits of mind that easily separate us from God and our fellow human beings.
For Isaiah’s age, this manifested as worship without justice, an overly abundant concern outward appearances and iniquity toward the objects of God’s love, to whom such ritual means always to point us. Rather than bring us ever nearer God and our neighbor, this fixation on worship can cut us off from one another because of the ways it tempts us to condemn our fellow companions by judgments based on something outward and physical.
For this reason, I find the traditional reading of the scene between Jesus and Zacchaeus unsatisfactory. The received reading of this portion of Luke often goes something like this: Jesus comes to the home of a despised chief tax collector who, in a dramatic act of contrition, vows to give away half of his wealth and even go far beyond the requirements of the law for restitution.
But an insight from my professor of New Testament Greek back in my grad school days leaves me arrested yet again. During a conversation about the nuances of translation, my professor used this passage from Luke as an example of the ways a preconceived theological formula can precede translation, influencing the message that results.
Contrary to the translation we just heard, the tense of the verbs in Zacchaeus’ declaration to Jesus are in the present, rather than future tense. That means Zacchaeus is not making some kind of promise (“Look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”). To the contrary, the Greek text reads more like, “Hey! Half of my possessions I give to the poor…[and] I pay back four times anything I have defrauded” — as in right now, already, as a matter of practice). Zacchaeus may actually be rebuking the crowds who close him in by defining him squarely as a sinner.
So what is going on here? If this passage isn’t a simple and paradigmatic description of the pattern of God’s behavior around forgiveness—namely that forgiveness only follows on the heels of repentance—then what is actually at stake here?
God is not a theory.
God is not a formula.
God is personal—so personal that the restrictions our human desire for control creates—whether around worship or any other part of life—simply will not do.
The crowd is indignant at Jesus for sharing Zaccheus’s company. It simply doesn’t follow the formula they expect. It challenges their concept of who God is.
And this is perhaps the scandalous surprise of Jesus: Against all odds and expectations God can just forgive sin, and that God can pronounce salvation apart from repentance. Why? Because of who God is; because it’s God prerogative; because this God is determined, even desperate, to be in relationship with each of us so that, in turn, we might be in relationship with each other.
This is not an easier reading, I admit. It complicates many of the lines we draw in the sand. It is not easy for us to hear.
We like our formulas because, truth be told, they give us a way to manage the illusion that maybe we’re still in control and that we know for certain who is within and who is without, providing rules we can know and follow and hold others accountable to. They help fence in the dramatically, wildly free character of God that the Bible portrays. All that disappears when God just forgives sin and pronounces blessing. It can be hard to accept that God could desire a relationship with everyone—even one’s own self.
But maybe that’s exactly why Jesus again shocks the crowds and disciples alike by seeking out this rich tax collector, honoring him, affirming him, naming him a child of God and declaring that, indeed, “salvation has come this very day to his household.”
God’s actual providence remind us that we never were in control in the first place. Which, while hard to take, proves in the long-run to be a good thing. God’s mercy greatly exceeds our needs and our expectations. Thanks God for God’s generous, scandalous mercy. Mercy that overflows our expectations and undoes so many of our theories, and formulas, and patterns.
 Isaiah 1:12—15
 Ἰδοὺ τὰ ἡμίσιά μου τῶν ὑπαρχόντων, κύριε, τοῖς πτωχοῖς δίδωμι, καὶ εἴ τινός τι ἐσυκοφάντησα ἀποδίδωμι τετραπλοῦν.
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