The Politics of Doing Justice—Isaiah 1:10-18; Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Luke 19:1-10 (Peter Leithart)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

In the declamation of Isaiah 1, the prophet associates Judah and its rulers with Sodom, for their inhospitality, injustice, and the presumption that they can hide this from God. Zacchaeus, a man characterized by such Sodom-like injustice, is delivered from this as justice is welcomed into his house in the person of Jesus.

Isaiah 1:10-18
10 Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
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.


12 When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more;
13 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.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
15 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.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17   learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.


18 Come now, let us argue it out,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Torah is uncompromising in its prohibition of homosexual acts: “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18:22) and “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely by put to death” (Leviticus 20:13).

In the New Testament, Paul regards unchecked homosexual desire as a sign of God’s judgment (Romans 1:18-32), and warns the Corinthians that “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, homosexuals, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9). Recent interpreters have tried to evade or soften the force of these texts, but these revisionist interpretations rely on subterfuges. One can reject the Bible’s teaching, but what that teaching is is plenty clear.

As the city associated with homosexuality, “Sodom” has long been a symbol of sexual perversion in Jewish and Christian discourse. When the prophets refer to Sodom, however, sexual sin is never at the forefront. Isaiah says that Judah has become a Hebrew Sodom, an Israelite Gomorrah (Isaiah 1:10), yet there is not a hint of sexual sin.

Judah’s rulers and people have become Sodomites because they do not seek justice, stop ruthless oppressors, or stand up for vulnerable widows and orphans. Judah’s rulers want public office to enrich themselves with bribes rather than defending the rights of the weak (Isaiah 1:23). Similarly, Ezekiel calls Jerusalem “Sodom” because of the city’s arrogance, luxurious indulgence, for refusal to strengthen the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16:49-50; cf. Revelation 18).

The original Sodom was an inhospitable city. Lot welcomes the strangers (angels) into his home, but the rest of the men of Sodom want to “welcome” the men by raping them. In the ancient world, it was not uncommon for men to abuse prisoners, strangers, slaves, lower classes in the ancient world through rape. The aim wasn’t pleasure but to dominate and shame the weak. Isaiah charges that the rulers of Judah have raped the poor and stranger with their unjust treatment.

From Isaiah’s condemnation of Judah’s unjust rulers, we can tease out a portrait of just rule. The law requires that judges judge impartially (Leviticus 19:15), neither favoring the rich because they are rich, or the poor because they are poor. Yet numerous passages indicate that the king must stand up for the poor, rescue the widow, defend the orphan and the stranger.

The ideal king of Psalm 72 “will bring justice to the poor of the people; He will save the children of the needy, and will break in pieces the oppressor.” Psalm 82 condemns the “gods” of Israel because they fail to “defend the poor and fatherless” to “do justice to the afflicted and needy” and to “deliver the poor and the needy from the hand of the wicked.” Isaiah himself predicts that the ideal King will judge the poor with righteousness and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth (Isaiah 11:1-4).

The wealthy and powerful always have ways to get a fair hearing, often a hearing that tilts in their favor. They hire the best lawyers; they have cocktails with judges; in a pinch, they gain leverage with bribes or threats. The poor, though, cannot get justice unless the judge is truly impartial, truly just, truly courageous. The fact that the wealthy and powerful are heard tells us nothing about the society. But it is a sign of genuine impartiality if there is justice for the forgotten.

Isaiah teaches us about the politics of worship. The people of Judah think they can deflect Yahweh’s attention from their injustices by continuing their worship. It doesn’t work. When Judah becomes Sodom, her worship turns inside out. Instead of producing a pleasing aroma, Judah’s burnt offerings give Yahweh “no pleasure” (Isaiah 1:11). Instead of sprinkling cleansing blood (Isaiah 1:11), they raise hands that are full of blood (Isaiah 1:15).

When they pray, Yahweh hides the eyes of his favor (Isaiah 1:15) and stops his ears to a people who has stopped its ears to him. Yahweh is Father of the fatherless, the Husband of widows. He expects Israel to follow his lead. When they don’t, he finds them so abhorrent that he doesn’t want them to get close to him in his house.

Judah should have known that the temple was no place to hide. Yahweh placed his heart and his eyes in the temple (1 Kings 9:3; Isaiah 1:16), ready to see, hear, and respond to his people. But Yahweh’s eyes are also the eyes of scrutiny, judgment, and evaluation. Coming into Yahweh’s presence means coming under his gaze, the gaze of the One who sees everything, before whom all things are laid bare.

It’s foolish to think that you can come into God’s presence to hide. Worship is not a safe haven for oppressors and tyrants. Worship is like turning yourself over to the constable every week for interrogation.

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4
The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw. O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint. Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it. For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.

Like Isaiah, Habakkuk saw only “destruction and violence before me; strife and contention arise.” The righteous are besieged by the wicked, and so judgment becomes perverse (Habakkuk 1:3-4). The law doesn’t fix anything, either, because the law itself “becomes slack.” Justice is elusive. It “never prevails.”

Because of Judah’s corruptions, the Lord calls in the Chaldeans. Some in Judah will survive exile, those who trust in God will count as righteous and will live by their faith. But Judah will be devastated in the process, and when the Chaldeans have cleared, it seems likely that Judah will eventually be back right where she started.

Human beings cannot do without law. But Habakkuk saw that we cannot achieve the justice Isaiah calls for without something more than law. To be delivered from Sodom, we need someone to invade Sodom.

Luke 19:1-10
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Zacchaeus’s hometown of Jericho is a mirror of Sodom. Sodom and Jericho are parallel cities already in the Hexateuch. When the angels come to visit Abraham, “he lifted up his eyes, and behold, three men” (Genesis 18). Before Joshua fights at Jericho, he “lifted up his eyes, and behold, a man with sword drawn” (Joshua 5). Both cities are doomed, and in both one household is saved (Lot, Rahab).

Zacchaeus is a comfortable Sodomite. He is a tax collector and “very rich.” Everything we know about publicans from Scripture and history indicates that Zaccheus couldn’t have achieved this without squeezing every drachma from the weak.

Then Jesus comes to Sodom-Jericho, and justice breaks out in the desert. When Zacchaeus turns to Jesus, he immediately pledges to make restitution. He restores all the money he has defrauded and donates half of his property to the poor (Luke 19:8).

His fourfold restitution is based on Exodus 22:1, which requires fourfold restitution for theft of a sheep. Zacchaeus perhaps believes he owes fourfold restitution because he has “fleeced” victims. Though “prostituted” to the Roman system, Zacchaeus and his house are, like Rahab’s, redeemed. He repents of his inhospitality and devotes his wealth to the kingdom and the poor. Salvation comes to his house and takes the concrete form of repentance, restitution, generosity, hospitality.

Salvation arrives in the form of justice at this one house in Jericho-Sodom. It doesn’t come by law. Salvation, righteousness, and justice come to his house because Jeshua-Jesus—“Yah Saves”—comes to his house. Justice comes not through slack law but through a reliable Savior, Jesus, the embodied Torah, the saving, living Word of the living, saving God.


Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute and an adjunct Senior Fellow of Theology at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho. He is ordained in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). He blogs at https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Share This

Share this post with your friends!