* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Isaiah 6: Dull Ears, Blind Eyes, and Calloused Hearts

Well into the book of Isaiah, in chapter 6, we finally see a typical version of a prophetic calling story, which we have noted in books named after other prophets. Here, the author describes supernatural creatures with six wings who shake the temple with their song of praise to Yahweh. Moreover, the author claims to have seen Yahweh himself, before the temple is filled with smoke. Isaiah's purification (so that he can deliver his prophetic message) takes the form of a hot coal, with which a seraphim scorches his lips. This action is said to remove Isaiah's guilt and sin, which is remarkable in an ancient Israelite context in that no blood is spilt. Then, Isaiah receives his first message about the people of Israel.

Obviously, this credentialing of a prophet is either fabrication or is an internal experience of the messenger. At the time, such supernatural legitimization was respected -- indeed, expected -- as evidence that a message was from God. For us, the truth of a message can suffice to determine its worthiness. Isaiah may have been addressing the ancient Israelites specifically, in the time preceding the Babylonian captivity. His words may have value for twenty-first century readers as well.

He accuses his people of being willfully deaf, blind, and calloused. The truth is all around them, but they choose not to acknowledge it. So, Yahweh decides that they should stay that way -- that their blindness, deafness, and lack of understanding should be kept in place, so that they have no chance to turn and find healing for their society. Isaiah asks how long that will go on, and he is given a rather ominous answer: until everything but the barest stump is destroyed.

First of all, this presents Yahweh as a rather small-minded and vindictive deity. People have been disobedient, and so he chooses to eliminate the possibility that they might straighten up and fly right, at least until they have experienced the full measure of consequences. He actively forces the Israelites' heartlessness, spiritual blindness, and ethical deafness. Not very nice. Of course, Isaiah may well have been reporting on the condition of things, portraying God as being in control while still acknowledging the sad state of affairs. If God is all-powerful and people are behaving like heartless jackals, then God must have chosen for them to behave that way, right?

Second, though, the state of affairs in ancient Jewish society was not all that different from what we see at work in the world today. People typically only take in information from sources with which they already agree, so their worldview is rarely challenged. People often select theological positions based on what makes them most comfortable. Our sense of morality and ethics is often clear in the abstract and murky when it comes to specific decisions in our own lives. We sometimes choose to be blind to the injustices going on around us, if our involvement would be risky or inconvenient. We sometimes choose to be deaf to the data of scientific discovery, especially if dealing with certain issues would cost us a bit of money or require a change to our lifestyle. We sometimes harden our hearts against the people around us, and we call it "tough love" when we aren't outright critical or vindictive. We sometimes even say, "I wish I could do something," when we have no real interest in learning what we could actually do to make a difference.

Most likely, the people of Isaiah's day didn't really need any help from a supernatural to keep their willing blindness, deafness, and callousness in place. People seem to be pretty adept at turning a blind eye to the things they don't want to address in their lives and in the world. It's also likely that the Assyrians -- and later the Babylonians -- would have overrun Israel and Judah and taken people into exile, because those actions were based on the irresponsible decisions of a few leaders and not the behavior of an entire nation. So, there probably is no actual cause and effect relationship between the destruction that Judah and Israel experienced and their culture of willful blindness. That doesn't mean that being deaf, blind, and heartless is a good idea. It just means that we can be motivated by something other than wrathful destruction.

If we choose to, we can open our eyes, ears, and hearts to the people around us and to the world we all share. We can give a little bit (or a little bit more) to organizations that make changes in people's lives. We can vote for representatives that stand on the side of social justice rather than on the side of partisan power mongering. We can reach out to the people in our communities who are less fortunate and volunteer a bit of our time to teach them, feed them, clothe them, befriend them. Sometimes having open ears just means being willing to listen to someone tell their story. Sometimes having open eyes just means acknowledging another person with a smile and a kind word. Sometimes having an open heart just means giving up a fancy cup of coffee once a week so that the money we would have spent on caffeine can allow someone on the other side of the world to eat.

And sometimes having open eyes, ears, and hearts means a little more. Sometimes it caring enough not to mind being inconvenienced when your neighbor needs a little help. Sometimes it means listening to the same story you've heard a dozen times because your friend just hasn't gotten through this particular issue yet. Sometimes, it means broadening our concept of who we're willing to befriend -- who we're willing to treat like a human being of innate value.

We are busy and overburdened people, and some of that is not by our choice. There is no deity deciding one way or the other whether we will be blind or have our eyes wide open to the world; we are the only ones who can decide how much we are willing to see, hear, and feel. The world is an incredible place, though, and the people who share it with us are even more incredible. We need one another. None of us is utterly self-sufficient. So, let's open our eyes, our ears, and our hearts a bit. Let's model a way of being in the world that inspires others to have more open eyes, ears, and hearts. Whatever it costs us, we will reap in dividends of human connection and personal satisfaction. There is something deeply satisfying about caring, particularly when we are clear about the principles that guide our lives.

Open your eyes.
Open your ears.
Open your heart.
And let others know when you need them to open their eyes, ears, and heart to you a bit, too.
Sometimes we all need a little reminder.

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