September 21, 2014
Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Isaiah 55:6-9
One of my favorite quotes says, “The opportunity of a lifetime must be seized in the lifetime of the opportunity” (Leonard Ravenhill). Since we are finite, limited beings, our opportunities are always constrained by time. In fact, it usually seems like there isn’t enough time to do all the things we want to: to exercise, to start a new hobby, to finish an old one, to clean the garage, to organize the drawers. The list goes on. Fortunately, most of the things we put off indefinitely are not that important. We can afford to procrastinate. But in this Sunday’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah warns us that we can’t afford to miss the time-limited opportunity to turn to God. While we have the chance, we should take advantage of it.
This passage falls in the latter part of Isaiah, a favorite stomping ground for the Lectionary. The prophet is conveying the merciful compassion of the Lord who invites his sinful people back to him despite their sins. He calls out, “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!” (Isa 55:1 NAB). This chapter is an invitation to return to God, to repent, to draw near to the one who offers his mercy to those who desperately need it. The Lord’s offer of mercy forecasts a brighter future, but it also draws on themes from the past. The new era to which God invites his people is one that actually renews his “everlasting covenant” with David (55:3). The power of the invitation lies in restoration: God will not cast aside his unfaithful people, but restore them to a loving, covenantal relationship with him.
Forsaking and Seeking
Every turning toward involves a turning away. While Isaiah invites us to “seek” God, that seeking involves a “forsaking.” He announces, “Let the wicked forsake his way…” (55:7 RSV). Just as when Jesus calls his followers, he begins with repentance (“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” Matt 3:2) and asks them to leave behind their old priorities and take up their crosses (Matt 10:37), so Isaiah bids the would-be follower to leave behind his old ways. In the same way that pursuing one opportunity of a lifetime involves giving up and forsaking many other possibilities, so turning toward God involves turning away from our old “ways” and “thoughts.” Only by letting go of self-oriented concerns, our sins, our habits of selfish thinking, are we able to open our hearts to the God who invites us away from our boxed-in world of self into a beautiful friendship with him.
Is God Near?
Isaiah makes a big deal about finding God “while he may be found” (55:6 RSV). That might seem odd, since elsewhere the Scripture affirms that God is omnipresent: “If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!” (Ps 139:8 RSV). If God is everywhere, what does it mean for him to be “near” only at certain times? In this case, Isaiah is pointing out that God’s nearness is something he initiates by invitation. God is near because he is giving his people an opportunity to return to him. The opportunity is only temporary. God’s nearness to us, the availability of his presence, the prospect of relationship with him lasts only for a time. In the New Testament, St. Paul affirms the urgency of the moment of opportunity: “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2 RSV). The opportunity Isaiah forecasts, Jesus announces, and Paul emphasizes is the same: the opportunity to repent of sin and turn to God so that he might heal us and draw us into communion with himself. St. Jerome says that the limited time is “while you are in the body, when you have an opportunity for penance.” After death, repentance and conversion are no longer possible, so now is a good time, the only time, to turn to God since “he will abundantly pardon” (Isa 55:7 RSV).
People love to quote this line from Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isa 55:8 RSV). Unfortunately, it doesn’t mean what we usually think it means. The typical context in which the passage is quoted indicates that God is saying how superior his ways of doing things are over ours—that his acts and decisions are so far beyond our comprehension that they are rightly called inscrutable. Now I don’t mean to suggest that this idea is incorrect (see Rom 11:33 on God’s inscrutable ways), but that’s not what Isaiah means to say here. The “ways” and “thoughts” of God are being compared to the “way” and “thoughts” of the wicked mentioned in v. 7. And in the following verses, we get a description of the effectiveness of God’s word—how it is powerful, irrevocable and always accomplishes its purpose (vv. 10-11). Putting all of this together, we can see that Isaiah is decrying the ineffectiveness, purposelessness, futility of the ways and thoughts of the wicked. Then when he proclaims that God’s ways are “above” our ways, he is emphasizing the effectiveness of God’s intentions. His acts, his aims, his goals come to fruition. While our purposes can be vain and futile, his always succeed.
Conclusion: Responding to the Call
We can apply two principles from this reading. First, we should constantly remember that this life is an opportunity to turn to God—a time-limited, temporary chance to repent and come to love him in a covenantal relationship. While we have the chance, we might as well take advantage of it since God will not be “near” forever. Second, part of the beauty of turning away from our ways to God is that we give up on the futility of self-seeking and sin, the utter silliness of pursuing our own plans apart from God, of trying to be like God on our own. By turning toward him, we get caught up in his superior “ways” and “thoughts.” Our feeble, ineffective self-seeking is turned inside out, transformed into a selfless life of love, lived out in relationship with the One whose ways truly are higher than ours. As the Second Vatican Council taught, man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes, sec. 24).