Brass Tacks

Welcome to the Knox Talks blog. Here you can find recent and past sermons relating scripture to a wide variety of topics. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.

Brass Tacks

Scriptures: Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 Luke 12:32-40

Isaiah 1:18 (NRSVUE) Come now, let us argue it out,
    says the Lord:
If your sins are like scarlet,
    will they become like snow?
If they are red like crimson,
    will they become like wool?
Isaiah 1:18 (NRSV) Come now, let us argue it out,
    says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.

I’m quite excited! They’ve come out with a new, more accurate version of the Bible: the New Revised Standard Version (Updated Edition) that does a much better job of taking into account the cultural context behind biblical passages, which can make a profound difference in how we read and interpret passages of the Bible.

When I was in first year seminary, I briefly took Classical Hebrew, a non-credit course that was as heavy as my five credit courses combined. I only lasted a few weeks before I dropped it.

But during that time I remember the Rabbi teaching the course doing an interpretation of Isaiah 1:18 where he said that it should be posed as a question:

If your sins are like scarlet, will they become like snow?

As opposed to the version that had held since King James:

Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow.

I associated this passage with the promise of forgiveness: the idea of sins being washed away completely. The Rabbi’s translation changed it from a promise to an ironic question.

So, I took this back to my Old Testament professor at Knox College who listened to me, and then pooh-poohed the Rabbi’s version, saying that it was simply an ironic reading of the words and should be disregarded.

That was in the fall of 1981. I had just moved to Toronto from Montreal where I had Jewish friends in school – my sister’s fiancé was Jewish – and I had met many Jewish business contacts of my mother’s and grandfather’s downtown.

I remember what the Rabbi said because his words fit what I knew of Jewish culture and because my Neo-Orthodox professor sounded so very defensive about the traditional translation.

And this week I discovered that this newest version, created by an international and inter-faith scholarly committee, has corrected this text to agree with what the Rabbi told our class 41 years ago. When I read this version now, the text flows better and it makes more sense. It feels like Christmas and I have a new toy!

What doesn’t change is that this feels like one of the most Protestant parts of the Bible.

Isaiah is preaching to the legendary cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. They were already legendary in his own day so they clearly represent someone else. One interpretation is that they stand in for Babylon, the city and empire that would soon invade and conquer Judah, tear down the walls of Jerusalem and take its people into a 70 year captivity.

But I don’t think so. I see this as a warning to God’s own people not to put their faith in empty rituals to keep them in God’s good books. It is more of a warning that they will be punished if they don’t start turning their faith into something outward looking and practical:

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove your evil deeds from before my eyes;
cease to do evil; learn to do good; seek justice;
rescue the oppressed; defend the orphan;
plead for the widow.

It’s getting down to brass tacks. The very opposite of a misuse of power, the opposite of corruption or selfishness, it’s a focus on helping the weakest in society instead of taking advantage of them. It combines a call to obedience to God with the interpretation that God’s will is for us to create a world of justice and generosity.

Jesus’ words at the beginning of our Luke lesson take it even further, with a radical call to invest in spiritual values and use our material wealth to that end so that we demonstrate with our lives that loving God really is what we value most. And we are to do that by loving our neighbour in practical ways that don’t leave us with a secure bank account but do have us invest in people.

I use the word “radical” on purpose. Despite the fact that Jesus spoke 2000 years ago and Isaiah wrote 800 years before him, it does not change the fact that their teachings still stand as a stark contrast to the way people expect things to work.

The way of the world is to use whatever you can to your own advantage: strength, skill, resources, whatever; to take what you want. A blatant example of this is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Empire building used to be a normal and acceptable thing where a powerful country could take over a weaker country and extract its resources for the benefit of the homeland and the creation of a lot of personal fortunes.

I think we had convinced ourselves after WWII that we had discouraged nations from doing this again, especially after the fall of the Soviet Union.

But we were fooling ourselves. We really had not stopped behaving this way but we had made it more “respectable” by turning it into business instead of warfare.

We were allowing the rich to get richer by whatever means they could invent, without really considering the plight of the widows and orphans as Isaiah would put it; the poor and the vulnerable, as we would say now.

At the same time we were using the resources of creation, recklessly burning fossil fuels, paving farmland, stripping the oceans of fish and other life, using clever chemicals that we hadn’t tested properly, so that we could have a more convenient life with more luxuries, more food out of season, cheap, disposable fashion and creating piles of waste that have now formed islands in the Pacific Ocean.

It is exactly the same thing Isaiah complained about: turning a blind eye to what is right and just and simply pursuing our selfish wishes and clinging to our comforts while words of faith are used to justify what we have always done.

It is painful and ironic that it took something as evil as the invasion of Ukraine to drive us to speed up our rate of change away from fossil fuels to renewables. It wasn’t a love of creation that put the heat on to do something about climate change, it was a war-induced fuel shortage that sent our society scrambling to find electric cars.

These powerful messages from ancient times are more important than ever these days. They are calls to re-examine the way we live our lives; to see whether our actions match our fine words; to discover whether we live up to the principles we express.

And now it’s more than just widows and orphans calling for justice; it is young people who don’t see any hope for the future and are angry with the “same old same old” approach; it is working families forced to use food banks; it is all the people who can’t find affordable housing.

This could turn into a political sermon really easily, but that’s not what I intend.

Because what Jesus said transcends politics: Go, make a difference! That whole idea of treasure in heaven is about reaching out to others to make things better without a thought to politics, or other dividing human factors. When we help, people won’t see a brand at work, they will see love at work, the love God calls us to share.

It could be love for others, love for creation, love for justice, love for building a society that works for everyone. People will see whichever kind of love inspires them most and all of these are reflections of God’s love. Each one is a kind of treasure in heaven, putting our money where our mouth is, stepping away from empty ritual and words and getting down to brass tacks with our faith.

I can’t think of an age that needs this message more than we do right now.

Amen.

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