Isaiah 55: 1-9
The Israelites had adapted quite nicely to their exile in Babylon, in fact they laid down roots. After so many generations they had forgotten about that good old promised land, that land of milk and honey that God had promised to Moses and their ancestors.
Apparently the words of Psalm 137 “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and there we wept when we remember Zion.” We hung our harps on the willows, “How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (v. 1, 2a, 4), apparently those words weren’t so much in their hearts and minds anymore like they were when they first were exiled to Babylon and the longing to go home was great.
They had become accustomed to their life in Babylon. They liked it. It was good. It was comfortable. They prospered. As one of the scholars say, “Eat royal bread, think royal thoughts.” Even if they weren’t in their own land, life was good like a fine glass of port, why think about home now?
At least they thought they were mighty-fine until Isaiah asks them a question. Why do you spend your money for bread that doesn’t satisfy you? They might be comfortable in Babylon but were they really satisfied?
Let us now hear the words of the Prophet Isaiah…
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live. I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.
Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your way and my thoughts than your thoughts.
The ancient marketplace in Babylon must have been a site. The busy daily commerce of the merchants calling out to the consumers, “Fresh frankincense for sale”, “Spelt, we’ve got spelt on special today, only 5 scheckels for a homer.”, “Don’t run out of oil for your lamps”; the old weights and measures scales barely emptied one bunch of grapes and a container of pomegranates was right up there on the scale. The aroma of the freshly baked pita loaves permeated the alley ways. All of this activity, made for a very lavish economy for some.
Can you see the women rushing from one keffiah headed vendor to the next in their long flowing gowns? Or how about the old women sitting on the pavement sorting her fresh herbs and spices for sale? Surely you might need some of her just picked hyssop.
People were buying. People were selling. And the poor people, the poor people where scavenging for peels and rinds in the piles of discarded, day old fruit.
No wonder the Israelites had assimilated so beautifully into Babylonian culture after their exile from Judah. What was there not to like? Good food, great frankincense. You can get pretty comfortable after a few generations.
There was so much to buy, so much on which to spend your money. As you’re leaving you see a large tray of brightly colored glass beads for sale, all different sizes. Should you? Can you splurge? What’s the harm, a few new beads to go with that gorgeous Mecca-imported silk you’ve just finished sewing into a robe. Or maybe that shiny anvil caught your eye, your husband could use a new anvil for his metal forging business.
But those beads, did you really need to purchase new beads? Will those beads make any sort of difference in your life? Will they satisfy your deepest desire for relationship, for self worth, for expression of what you really value in life? Will those beads give you a deep and abiding sense of stability and ultimately grace?
Isaiah thinks not! Folks the lure of materialism is an age-old problem.
Isaiah names and nails it. “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (55:2)
Isaiah’s formidable task was to tell them to abandon their ways, to stop buying this pagan, nutrient-absent, life-zapping bread. They were too comfortable. They were eating bread that won’t satisfy them in the long run. Isaiah, spokesperson for God, names it and nails it.
You know, being a prophet is not an easy profession, you don’t generally win the title of Ms. or Mr. Congeniality! I had one professor in seminary that opened a lecture with “Be glad your daddy wasn’t a prophet!” Their news, though essential, was not easy to hear or heed.
Let’s cut to the chase. We are not exempt from this consumer driven culture that we live in just like those Israelites in Babylonia. Don’t think for a minute that the children of Israel are the only ones who are in need of ‘correction’. We ALL are in need of finding our way back to God and renouncing all that which distracts us from healthy, God-focused living. Now this is not a rub on capitalism but it is a rub again consuming with the idea that it will satisfy and make your life complete.
It’s all too easy today to lose our way and to forget about what truly matters, what truly can fill us with satisfaction and love. It’s much too easy to partake in the bread of secularism and the loaves of materialism because it’s lathered in a rich and creamy dressing which is an aphrodisiac to those who are empty; it is the opiate of our day. Follow it and you’ll be fed for a time being. Buy into to it and you’ll have lots of interesting and beautiful stuff but will you be satisfied?
What satisfies you? How do you know when you are filled to capacity and needing no more? This a call to examine what it means to live a life giving, an energizing existence.
The voice of Isaiah cries out, the ever present, all inclusive prophet speaks to all. There is room for everyone here, it’s win win: those with means, don’t be lured by distractions and those with lesser or no means, please just come; YOU will be given what you need to endure life and to prosper when you follow the Lord. This is ultimately a passage of invitation to a richer, grander and fuller life for each an every person.
For Christians Christ can satiate our emptiness. Eat this bread…..and be filled with peace. Drink this cup….your yearnings will cease. Eat this bread…your hunger and emptiness will be assuaged. Drink this cup….relax, be still, release your grip and just rest in the incredible presence of God.
Come and never be hungry, trust and you will not thirst.
May this be our Lenten hope and prayer.
Photographs taken by Suzanne. Man and Women in Bethlehem marketplace. Tray of beads found in the Old City of Jerusalem. 2007.