The readings are from the Catholic lectionary for daily mass, while the headlines are meant to keep my thinking real:
43 PALESTINIAN ISRAELIS KILLED THIS YEAR BY STATE FORCES
Isaiah 40:1-11 ©
‘Console my people, console them’
says your God.
‘Speak to the heart of Jerusalem
and call to her
that her time of service is ended,
that her sin is atoned for,
that she has received from the hand of the Lord
double punishment for all her crimes.’
A voice cries, ‘Prepare in the wilderness
a way for the Lord.
Make a straight highway for our God
across the desert.
Let every valley be filled in,
every mountain and hill be laid low.
Let every cliff become a plain,
and the ridges a valley;
then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed
and all mankind shall see it;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
A voice commands, ‘Cry!’
and I answered, ‘What shall I cry?
All flesh is grass
and its beauty like the wild flower’s.
The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the Lord blows on them.’
‘The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God remains for ever.
Go up on a high mountain,
joyful messenger to Zion.
Shout with a loud voice,
joyful messenger to Jerusalem.
Shout without fear,
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God.”
Here is the Lord coming with power,
his arm subduing all things to him.
The prize of his victory is with him,
his trophies all go before him.
He is like a shepherd feeding his flock,
gathering lambs in his arms,
holding them against his breast
and leading to their rest the mother ewes.’
It’s necessary to say that this prophecy has nothing to do with the modern state of Israel and its brutal policies. Students of the passage will see that I’ve punctuated this in an unfamiliar way, because I think the words about the frailty of flesh come from the prophet; and that all the words from “the grass withers..when the breat of the Lord blows upon them.” to the end, come from the heaveny voice that instructs him.
IN 538 BCE King Cyrus of Persia who had conqured Babylon allowed its slave peoples to go home. Some, but by no means all of theJewish slaves whose families were captured in 586 BCE took advantage of this permission and set off on the long journey back to Jerusalem, without much knowledge of what they would find when they got there. From the point of view of Cyrus, this would have been a scarcely noticeable movement of people.
To the prophet we call Second Isaiah (to distinguish him from his 8th century BCE namesake) it was like a second exodus of God’s people, led by God himself, whose agent Cyrus had defeated Babylon. The trek across the desert is for him more like a royal procession which has to be eased by the construction of a sacred highway. The prophet is admitted to the heavenly court and told to comfort God’s people with the news of God’s return to Zion. They are not going back alone. The prophet protests that his sad experience has taught him that human life doesn’t count for much, but he is told that God’s word counts for everything. He must climb to the highest vantage point he can find and bellow the news of God’s victory to Judah.
After all this warlike imagery, the prophet is given a picture of the returning God as a compassionate shepherd who feeds, gathers, carries and leads his flock. The majesty and the tenderness of God are equally depicted.
Did Isaiah have access to supernatural knowledge that enabled him to make this prophecy? I don’t think so. He saw the facts like everyone else did, but his faith and imagination granted him this vision. Do I mean that God was not speaking to him? No, but he would have had no proof that God was doing so other than this imaginative experience which he trusted and communicated to his people. Indeed all we have is his imaginative experience, recorded perhaps by disciples and edited by scribes, and from this we have deduced the existence of the prophet. We must also recognise the poetic ability of the prophet without which his imaginative experience might never have been remembered.
As small groups of Christian believers today begin the long journey home from our exile in the land of unlimited material indulgence, we need our prophets to re-imagine the reality of God-for-us, who will feed, gather, carry and lead his flock to good pasture. In Scotland we are well blessed with secular artists who have re- imagined the promised land for us and given us some ethical and political guidance for the journey; but because it is above all a spiritual quest we need visions of faith as well.
Matthew 18:12-14 ©
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Tell me. Suppose a man has a hundred sheep and one of them strays; will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hillside and go in search of the stray? I tell you solemnly, if he finds it, it gives him more joy than do the ninety-nine that did not stray at all. Similarly, it is never the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.’
Farming friends tell me that Jesus’ shepherd is an unusually stubborn and obsessive sort of fellow, who puts the flock at risk for a single sheep. But none of them are shepherds; they are farmers who do a million other tasks as well as caring for sheep. When your only job is to care for sheep your perspective is different. Your pride in your own skill is engaged when one of them strays. But certainly shepherds were stubborn and obsessive creatures whose personal knowledege of each sheep would astound the modern farmer. And yes, such a man or woman might leave a flock somewhere safe in order to recover a stray.
Jesus compares God to this stubborn and obsessive shepherd who is more delighted to find the stray than with the rest of the flock, any one of whom of course might be the stray on another occasion. If you’ve never strayed you won’t find this a congenial picture of God. But for those of us who have done so, it’s the gospel.