21st Sunday Ordinary Time • Isaiah 58:9b–14 • Heb 12:18–29 • Lk 13:10–17 • August 21, 2022
Shakespeare’s Richard III is famous for saying on the battlefield that he would give his kingdom for a horse. As much as his kingdom was worth, in that moment his life depended on replacing the horse he had lost. Under similar duress, a starving Esau in Genesis 25 sold his inheritance as the firstborn to his brother Jacob in exchange for a meal. Unlike Richard, Esau lived, perhaps to regret his choice.
The author of Hebrews mentions this story about Esau just before today’s passage. That’s why it’s significant that he goes on to say, “you have come to the assembly of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven,” implying that we too stand to inherit a domain that we would be foolish to trade away – a domain even greater than Esau’s because it is heavenly, not earthly, and “cannot be shaken.”
What might tempt us to trade away this inheritance? More is at issue than the small temptations of daily living. Also preceding today’s passage is a long list of heroes – the “cloud of witnesses” we heard about last week – who passed gruesome tests of faith, often at the cost of their very lives. The implication is that our heavenly inheritance is worth more than anything we can imagine – that it gives us reason to overcome even our attachment to life itself. That is asking a lot; according to the yoga sutras, this attachment can ensnare even advanced practitioners on their quest for freedom and peace.
As if presenting us with this alarming choice is not enough, the author of Hebrews goes on to underline its either-or nature with the quote, “our God is a consuming fire.” This comes from Deuteronomy 4:24, which says, “For your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.” I would like to suggest that this is not a description of God’s personality. Rather, the image of a fiercely jealous God is a personification of a spiritual truth, a law of spiritual reality: that in certain respects, we can’t have it both ways.
Isaiah describes the same law in terms that are more positive, more specific, and grounded in the everyday, rather than in dramatic choices between earthly and eternal life. He testifies to the availability and wonder of God’s ongoing guidance and support: “God will guide you continually… and you shall be like a watered garden…” But he also emphasizes the price of admission to this gardenlike experience; it comes only “if you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil; if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted.”
Like the author of Deuteronomy, Isaiah is not describing a jealous or judgmental God capriciously holding out a reward and waiting to see if we qualify for it or not. Instead, I think he is describing a law of the spirit and indeed of psychology. When I engage in finger-pointing blame and accusation, when I close my heart to someone else’s needs and point of view (or even to my own), I am in some version of fight-flight-or-freeze. At some level, my attachment to life itself is engaged. Current research on the nervous system, specifically polyvagal theory, shows that fight-or-flight and freeze create tunnel vision and inhibit attunement to social cues and receptivity to social interaction. I think these states also inhibit prayer, inspiration, and discerning the voice of the Holy.
Openness to the Holy and to each other go hand in hand. The ancient prophets constantly emphasize living justly as a condition of closeness to the Holy One. In continuity with this tradition, Jesus urges us to make peace with our adversaries before we offer gifts at the altar, and he links the commandments to love God and to love our neighbor. So, if we want to experience being sustained like Isaiah’s watered garden, connected to the flow of divine guidance, we need to be attuned and receptive to community. This requires us to leave fight-flight-or-freeze behind. However, as current research also recognizes, it’s not easy to transcend fight-flight-or-freeze by willpower alone.
Fortunately, we can draw on time-tested calming practices, many of them familiar from multiple spiritual traditions and amplified by being practiced as part of a group. There is meditation or centering prayer. There is music and chanting. We can anchor our consciousness in the recall of some beneficial figure in our lives, as in Buddhist benefactor practice or Catholic prayer to saints. There is the familiar rhythm of ritual, including religious ritual. And there is the practice of taking regular Sabbaths, times of deep rest. These practices have value specifically because they tend to restore a baseline of calm, a feeling of safety, a state of the nervous system in which our hearts can open to one another and to divine guidance.
It’s from this openhearted state that Jesus offers healing to the bent-over woman. That’s why he sees the synagogue leader’s response as hypocritical. The Sabbath is indeed of great value, and Jesus himself regularly honors it and participates in the traditional liturgy, as other scriptures tell us. But the value of Sabbath worship and rest lies precisely in the space it creates for our hearts to open; when we close our hearts to anyone, we close them to God.
Thus, to defend the Sabbath by refusing to heal a person in need would be short-sighted and self-defeating. In an effort to reopen the hearts of his hearers, Jesus uses the language of family relationships, calling the woman a daughter of Abraham. This makes her, by extension, a sister to everyone present. Jesus deploys the same strategy in the parable of the prodigal: when the elder sibling complains about what “this your child” has done, the parent encourages welcoming the return of “this your sibling.”
I cannot read the letter to the Hebrews now without thinking of Paul Knitter’s warnings against the dangers of supersessionism, the assertion that Christianity supersedes Judaism. Through that lens, it’s easy to see in the letter a Jacob-like desire for the younger tradition to displace its elder sibling as the one true heir. But when Jesus was presented with a sibling dispute over an inheritance, he said, “Who made me a judge between you?” I imagine that if Jesus read the letter to the Hebrews, he would simply call the members of the two faiths to respect and care for one another as the siblings that they, we, are.
Personally, I’m convinced that God has always spoken to all people, albeit in dazzlingly different languages. Across half a dozen traditions that, in the letter of their dogmas, clash like paisley and plaid, I’ve encountered profoundly parallel insights when it comes to basic laws of spiritual reality, including Isaiah’s words this morning.
That brings us back to the choice jointly presented by Isaiah and the author of Hebrews – the invitation to the experience of grace, and the reminder that it entails opening our hearts, sharing what we have, and resisting the temptation to judge or use one another. Even when this temptation to judge or use one another doesn’t come directly from our personal lives, it’s a daily feature of news and social media. Constant messaging spurs us toward fight-flight-or-freeze, provoking us either to judge and attack other people in anger or to seek to control them out of fear. It can be hard to resist those reactions without falling into a state of despairing immobility, which also closes our hearts.
Today’s readings remind us that there’s an alternative, the graced and open-hearted state of Isaiah’s “watered garden,” waiting for us as our very birthright. That traditional practices such as Sabbath help restore us to that birthright. That we are wise to release our attachments even to traditions, property, and life outcomes and essentials when they come between us and that birthright. And that when we do so, we may find an unshakeable peace.