The Jewish nation has been challenged to settle the land of Canaan several times both in ancient times and in modern history. The land originally donated by God to Abraham and his descendants, roughly from today’s Lebanon in the north to the border of Egypt in the south and from the Mediterranean Sea inward to the Jordan River, first had to be won from the many Semetic tribes that had already settled there. Again after the return of the Jewish people from exile in Egypt, Joshua and his successors had to re-win the land of Canaan from tribes that had overrun the land during the Jew’s absence. Still again, about five hundred years before Christ, the Jews were led off into a second exile this time in Babylon lasting seventy years. Theirs was then the great challenge of re-settling their ancestral home. The temple had to be reconstructed; homes had to be re-built; fields had to be re-planted; commerce had to start anew; a whole new life had to commence under difficult and demanding conditions.
Like any nation caught in social and cultural turmoil, the Jews who were challenged to rebuild the Palestine found that not every returned exile was filled with zeal and commitment for the laws and ways of the Lord. There was much corruption, neglect and irresponsibility. As the lengthy Book of Isaiah draws to its final chapters, the author laments the vices afflicting his people. The first reading this coming Sunday reads: “Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind. There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt.” The sacred author is truly stressed by the failure of his people to embrace their rich religious heritage and by the eagerness with which they adapt the ways of their pagan neighbors: “Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?”
The laments of Isaiah twenty-five hundred years ago apply readily to the social and cultural turmoil of today’s American society. Indeed there are fewer and fewer who “call upon God’s Name;” and there are more and more who “wander from his ways.” Although Protestants held the upper hand during most of American history, there was a sufficient consensus among the Christian majority of the United States to allow the formation of a basic moral framework.
The Ten Commandments, sometimes observed, sometimes ignored, still formed an accepted outline of society’s responsibilities. Respect for the Lord’s Day translated into 65% of Americans attending church services after the Civil War and after World War II. Respect for family life and marriage made divorce rare and abortion unthinkable. The gender issues that form today’s headlines were unspeakable topics for our American ancestors. Still prejudice and injustice regarding race, religion and class abounded in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Our forebears were no saints. But neither were they Godless. There was a common sense of a higher authority, and of good and evil, of right and wrong. The vices of the powerful might have been quietly tolerated but the virtues of the middle classes were publically celebrated. Observed or not, there were standards. Today, these are fast fading.
Faced with the indifference of his fellow citizens, the author of the final chapters of Isaiah turns directly to God, seeking Divine intervention as a solution to society’s stubbornness. He prays, “You, LORD, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever. Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage. Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old.”
The sacred author wishes that the situation were otherwise; that Israel was being faithful to God’s instructions: “Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways!” Still, the author is totally convinced of the goodness and kindness of God as Savior: “Eye has not seen nor ear heard what things God has prepared for those who love him.” Isaiah simply wants a second chance for his people to reform themselves and to please God: “Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands. Then we will no more withdraw from you; give us new life, and we will call upon your name.” St. Paul in the second reading concurs: “God is faithful,” he simply notes. If a society shuns God, God will never abandon them. There was hope then and there is hope now.