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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Isaiah and Economic Justice 12: The Peaceable Household (Oikos)

Isaiah 11:1-11

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
    the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.

He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
    and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.


    On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
    On that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that is left of his people, from Assyria, from Egypt, from Pathros, from Ethiopia, from Elam, from Shinar, from Hamath, and from the coastlands of the sea.

In another familiar text from Advent, Isaiah 11 speaks of a shoot growing from a stump.  It is a familiar image for anyone who has had a tree cut down in the yard.  Unless it suffered from disease and died all the way down to the roots, it usually keeps sending up new growth every spring.  If you did not want the tree, then you have to keep cutting it back, maybe even digging it out.

Isaiah says that this is the nature of God's judgment.  It is like pruning.  The damaged, diseased, dead, unbalanced, or otherwise problematic parts are cut back to reshape and revitalize the tree.  Christians have long seen this as a Messianic text linking Jesus to the promises God made to Israel.  The Messiah brings a new beginning from the same root of God's love in calling Israel to be a holy nation.

Even without Christological interpretation, the text describes a ruler who is wise, pious, righteous, equitable, faithful, and just.  The ruler will provide justice to the poor and to the meek.  All who would abuse and oppress them will receive swift and harsh judgment.  It is a promise of a different kind of world than the one that has brought the prophetic oracles delivered by Isaiah against Judah.

The lines which follow have inspired the imagination of writers, painters, musicians, and everyday folks through the centuries.  In classic poetic parallelism of Hebrew literature, line after line names a vulnerable animal and a dangerous predator.  The vulnerable are lambs, kids, calves, cows, oxen, and human infants and toddlers.  The predators are wolves, leopards, lions, bears, asps, and adders.  They appear in pairs, perhaps echoing the pairs going into the ark, but this time shockingly from different species who are not usually at peace.  The multiple species also echo the story of Eden, in which the various species lived in harmony.  To reinforce that allusion, it says that lions will eat straw like oxen.

The juxtaposition of the weak alongside the predators reminds the reader of how things have been in Judah.  The powerful have preyed on the vulnerable.  Often, when people describe themselves as powerful, whether it be kings, bankers, day-traders, generals, senators, and such, they compare themselves to predators.  Sport teams prefer mascots like lions, tigers, hawks, eagles, vipers, bears, wolves, and panthers.  It was true long ago as well.  Kings liked to be called lions.  Biblical language reflects this, for example the term "the Lion of the Tribe of Judah" can refer to a king from David's descent.  Chapter 10 refers to the king of Assyria as a "Bull."  But these lines challenge that kind of language.  They speak of a transformation of nature.

These poetic lines provide a restatement in different language of what the shoot from Jesse will bring.  Lions, bears, and adders will become known for their gentleness.  Lambs will have no reason to fear wolves.  Human babies need not scream or run from the presence of poisonous snakes.  The change from business as usual, what the powerful thought of as "natural," will be complete under the plan of God.  Those who were previously predators and those who were previously prey can now live together harmoniously because there must be no oppression of the poor, no twisting of the laws to favor the wealthy, no double standard shaped by money.  When everyone listens and learns the ways of God, it will become clearly rational that together they must make sure there is no one in need among them.  When everyone loves God and the goodness of God's creation more than private control, status, power, and luxury, then finding the way to live together in harmony will again be revealed as the purpose for living.

Clive Rainey, one of the originals from Habitat for Humanity, uses a term that makes some sense here for thinking about economic life.  He says that part of the benefit of Habitat's approach to housing comes from "rooftop moments."  Rainey is referring to those moments when a Habitat homeowner, putting in sweat equity on the home she is going to buy, finds herself alone working on the roof with a church-going banker, manager, or business owner.  As often as not, the pair are of different skin colors.  In those minutes or hours spent working, eventually people who come from groups who almost never have occasion to speak with one another strike up a conversation.  They almost inevitably find their presuppositions about one another shattered.  As they tell their stories to one another, they begin to imagine a world not so divided into the successful and the failures, the rich and the poor, the hard-working and the lazy, the smart and the stupid, the deserving and the undeserving.  I think this is what the wolf and the lamb lying together is supposed to tell us about the household of God.

The Greek word for household is oikos, the same Greek root from which we get our word economy.  An economy, if it is like a household, is a system of provision through interdependence and mutuality.  Everyone is not exactly alike.  All have distinct gifts.  Some may excel beyond others.  But at base, all contribute and all benefit.  When needed, all sacrifice, but as the Apostle Paul says, they do so in proportion to what they have.  Some must contribute and sacrifice more in a commitment to care for each person.  The Peaceable Kingdom is also a Peaceable Household.  They are both Beloved Community.

1 comment:

Shaun Harr said...

Mr. Rainey's words remind me how blessed I am to have attended a university with a large number of international students and to have traveled abroad. These opportunities have exposed me to other cultures and provide a unique perspective. I wish I could say that they have given me a stronger faith in humanity's ability to respond positively to those who are seen as "other." Unfortunately, across much of Europe, as here in the United States, immigrants are made into scapegoats for economic problems and blamed for "draining the social welfare system." Rather than taking the time to enter into conversation, all too often, we demonize and ostracize.

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