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Politics of Scripture

The Politics of God’s Ways and the Politics of Our Ways—Isaiah 55:1–9 (Richard Davis)

God’s way are qualitatively different from ours, belonging to a different order, relativizing human good and exposing human evil. Isaiah’s vision presents and invites people to God’s way of abundance, mercy, and inclusion from their own ways of scarcity, revenge, and exclusion.

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.

Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

In trying to follow Jesus, Christians try to make a connection between the ways of God and their ways of life on earth. God calls us be holy and Jesus asks us to follow him, but as we learn through experience, it is not easy to be holy disciples of Christ. Attempting to model our lives on God takes on a social and political dimension when Christians attempt to model human politics after the ways of God. Many are the projects and policies that Christians and their churches have promoted and attempted in order make human politics imitate and project God’s justice and peace into the world. Some emphasize God as king, lawmaker, or judge. Others emphasize God as reconciler, peacemaker, or author of justice.

But, however we try to understand God as a political actor, in the end God’s thoughts and ways are not our ways. They are higher than ours can ever be. It is important here to make an ontological point: God’s ways are not of the same order as ours. It is not as though they are similar, but purer or better. We cannot ascend to God’s ways like we would climb a flight of stairs. No, God’s ways are of a different order altogether. There is a qualitative difference between our ways and God’s ways. This is sometimes understood as the incomprehensibility of God, meaning that we cannot understand God and God’s ways. And if we cannot understand them, we certainly cannot implement them as a political program.

If God’s ways are different even to the ways of Christians, the ways of non-Christians can sometimes be even further from God. At other times, they might be closer. But we should not delude ourselves that all rulers are somehow one step below God in implementing justice and peace. There is a real quantitative difference between the various human political options. All fall short of God’s ways, but not to an equal degree. In our reading, we see both holy and unholy people coming under the judgment of God’s different higher ways.

Verses 1 and 2 show the first difference between God’s ways and human ways. Here we encounter a strange, if not utopian, vision of people buying and eating rich food without money. This is God’s new economy—one of abundance for everyone, whether or not they have money to spend. This vision is immediately contrasted with the pointlessness of human endeavors in laboring for things that do not satisfy. This was the reality of the imperial economy of Babylon. It is also our experience of the modern capitalistic economy. We work hard for a reward that can leave us empty and dissatisfied.

These verses can be read in several ways. At one level, God provides real food and drink for the poor (and anyone else), just as we see in the Magnificat (Luke 1:53). Those who rely on their wages to buy food and drink, dine, but are not satisfied. Money, and its ability to provide food and drink, is relativized here, but God’s true provision is what really satisfies us. Another way of reading these verses is metaphorically, in the way that rabbinic commentators have sometimes interpreted the water of verse 1 as the Torah or law of God. Adapting this line of interpretation, we may see the human struggle for wages to buy food and drink as a limited human attempt to make one’s own laws, or political economy. But human laws and politics cannot get close to God’s rule. Sometimes human law seems more like institutionalized sin than any attempt to model law on God’s peace and justice. In the place of human struggles for justice we are offered God’s perfect rule.

Second, the mention of the everlasting covenant in verses 3-5 continues this train of thought. What was promised to David—that his throne be established forever (2 Samuel 7 and Psalm 89)—is now the inheritance of the nations. New nations will come to join in the new inclusive covenant. The nations “that you do not know” could be a way of saying “all nations”, indicating a universal covenant between God and humanity. God will be the God and ruler of all nations who turn to him. Israel will be revived, and live in such a way that is as attractive to people as free fine food and wine. This can be read as the new political deal God offers humanity through Jesus, the new David (Matthew 1). Read in this way, this passage reminds us of Jesus’s statement to Pilate in John 18:36: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” The politics of Jesus is not the politics of this world.

The nations of the earth will come running to Israel as its attractive vision is appealing to all. The glory of God will shine from the renewed community of God. Can the church today be like this community—one that people run to for a renewed life? In the Western world we might observe the opposite, people leaving church and running off to join secular or political religions. How many people have left or moved away from the church to join political movements or parties, follow political ideologies or become revolutionaries? There have been many. But some of these have realized that they were spending their money, time, and lives on that which did not satisfy. One might recall the famous book The God That Failed (1950), which features six accounts of disillusioned former communists. They didn’t all join the church afterwards, but they did come to see the false religion of communism for what it was. How many others have become disillusioned with capitalism, liberalism, or democratic politics and have sought something that will truly satisfy? The fine wine and food offered by political parties in election years often never makes it to the voters to whom it promised. Perhaps those disillusioned with democracy may be open to the politics of Jesus.

Third, and finally, we have in verses 6 and 7 an offer of mercy to the wicked and unjust. Who are they? Are they merely the misguided people of verse 2 who are looking in the wrong places? No, these are people trying to pervert the ways of justice. But they have nothing to fear if they return to the Lord, for then they will be pardoned. God’s ways are unlike the wicked, but they are also unlike those who will not forgive the wicked and unrighteous their transgressions. God is the one who presents us with a new community of abundance through his rule over all nations. This is a positive message of reconciliation and forgiveness for all, offering a clue into how human politics may approach the justice of God. Any society that does not offer forgiveness and reconciliation to the wicked and unrighteous is falling well short of the ways of God.

Pope Francis was speaking in a similar way last week about presidential hopeful Donald Trump. Referring to Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the USA-Mexican border, the Pope said: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” In saying this, Francis was suggesting that Trump’s human way of seeking peace and the integrity of the United States of America is a not a Christian way. According to Francis, Trump’s ways fall well short of God’s ways. It would be much more Christian, in Francis’ view to build bridges instead of walls.

This passage from Isaiah shows some of the differences between God’s ways in politics and economics and ours. God’s ways here are abundant, inclusive, and merciful. Human ways, by contrast, are based on scarcity, exclusivity, and revenge. Sometimes we fall just short of God, at other times we are hopelessly sinful. Human politics will always range between trying to reach for God’s ways or turning from them. Sometimes human politics will be demonic. The challenge for us is to have the humility to recognize that our ways are not God’s, while striving to follow God’s way and not our own.

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