God and the Poor, with No Excuse

Listening to Life/2 With Isaiah, beyond accusations and ritual sacrifices

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire  on 03/07/2016

Spighe di grano rid"No longer inhabited stone monasteries / Why is the heart not made of stone! / And you, too, men, do not make / Claws of your hands. / Free, o, monks, you return / with no bag, just your / bare feet on the asphalt. / Let the world be / Your monastery / Like once / Europe was."

David Maria Turoldo, O sensi miei… Poesie 1948-1988  (Oh, my senses... Poems 1948-1988; rough English translation of the Italian original)

The first strategy implemented by the powerful to ignore the arguments of the poor has been, and continues to be, to think and say that they are guilty, attributing them the blame for their poverty. Isaiah condemns the people and its elite, but does not condemn the poor. In a culture where the poor were considered guilty as well, the prophets (along with Job) say the exact opposite: the pain of the poor is the consequence of the sins of the leaders and of the idolatry and false religion of the kings and priests. The poor are the victims of injustice of an unfaithful people, they are not guilty.

To understand the revolutionary force of the ruthless and radical critique of Isaiah, we must remember that the environment in which he worked and lived was the temple of Jerusalem. The priests condemned by the Prophet were the ones who celebrated the sacrifices. They were his very close fellow citizens, people with whom he was in contact every day. The sacrifices continued while Isaiah criticized them, and the poor were left without help. The fate of the prophet lies in having to announce the stupidity of the offerings of bulls and lambs while their blood is trickling under his feet. If the pain for their own failure, or worrying about offending his listeners, had held the words of Isaiah and the other prophets back, today we would have no great words to continue to state the futility of some of our "sacrifices" and to denounce the idolatry of the religion and atheism of our time. The prophets love us because, by vocation, they do not take any of our self-comforting illusions for granted. The idols are adulators and seekers of adulators, the prophets never.

Continuing the reading of Isaiah we begin to discover the great anthropological and theological richness that hides behind the radical critique of the sacrifices that opens his book. The offerings in the temple and the trade done inside it are the wrong path because the right path is a different one, that of justice, and so that of acting in favour of the poor: "seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause." (1,17) To act in favour of the oppressed, the orphans, the widows and the foreigners is the only possibility for authentic religious life. The condition of the poor in our community of faith is the first criterion for justice and it is also the first criterion for religious life: "How the faithful city has become a whore, (...) Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow's cause does not come to them." (1,21-23). For Isaiah the search for justice, and therefore the condition of the poor, is first of all a problem of theology, not welfare. Although the ways of loving the poor are at least as many as the faces of poverty and the poor, there are religious experiences that forget the poor to the point of no longer seeing them and they come to believe that they have disappeared from the opulent cities. And those religious experiences are, in fact, idolatry. When we meet the true voice of the biblical God, we are called to leave our land for other places, to get out of our "already" to a "not yet", to abandon our security to deal with something else, someone else. This is why the concern for poverty is the necessary condition for faith: the first "not yet" to which to move is the signal that we do not reduce God to a consumer good. It is also possible to become idolaters together with the poor, but the God of the Bible cannot be followed without the poor.

For this reason, in Isaiah's speech we meet the sin against the poor first and only after that comes the condemnation of idolatry: the religions and spiritual communities without the poor are already idolatrous. These are, in fact, people and communities that attend the temples, pray, sing and say praises, but they have lost contact with the poor, they do not embrace them or invite them into their homes, they do not do anything to change laws and improve the conditions of the poorest, and so they are already inside an idolatrous worship, even if they do not know it. The only road that leads us away from the idols is the one taken together with the poor. The God of the Bible is there, only there can we hope to find him. He is always tight and uncomfortable in the temples we build him, he stays for a little while and reluctantly, because he loves the suburbs and the outdoors.

That's why in the early chapters of Isaiah, his argument about sacrifices intersects several times with the one about the poor and the idols: "For you have rejected your people, the house of Jacob, because they are full of things from the east and of fortune-tellers like the Philistines (...). Their land is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to their treasures; their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots. Their land is filled with idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their own fingers have made." (2,6-8)

Idolatry, magicians, soothsayers, the pursuit of wealth and neglect of the poor are faces of the same pseudo-religious prism. Yesterday and today there are many believers who forget the poor and fill the temples, and perhaps, after they leave the church they also read their horoscope in the newspaper or buy a scratch-and-win ticket. Isaiah tells us simply and uncompromisingly that these religious practices are idolatrous cults. Worshipping artefacts, rites to celebrate fertility (1,29), the search for gold, not caring for the poor are the same thing: they are different expressions of the same religious and social prostitution.

Idolatry is not external to religion, it is its main auto-immune disease, which generates itself when it loses contact with the prophecy. Isaiah adds two elements to the biblical criticism of idolatry that are fundamental to all faiths and all idolatry: the idol also creeps into the temples of religion (with the sacrifices) and takes us away from the poor. Religions have always abounded in idolatry, especially in times of religious crisis, when, faced with the difficulty of understanding and repeating the ancient words of the biblical faith, instead of re-reading the prophets, people seek oracles and soothsayers, inside and outside the temples, who promise simpler salvations for them. But, yesterday and today, the "markers of idolatry" are always the same: plenty of cults and away from the cry of the poor, escapes looking for excitement and cheap consolations. Forms of idolatry are consumer experiences, because the artefact is built with the hope that they meet our needs. The idols are many and popular because they are timely responses to consumer tastes.

The first gift that the Bible, and in it especially the prophets, gave us over the millennia is protection from idol-making, which has always been and continues to be the most common "religious" experience under the sun. It happens very rarely that we say the word "God" and our voice does not reach the other side, only the echo of itself, resounded by our artefacts. The Bible is a map that leads us into the spiritual and human regions where it is possible (though not certain) that our prayerful voice and our cries are picked up by someone other than ourselves, different from our products or friends.

The Bible, and the prophets know very well - they have learned it from the pain of faithfulness to the truth of the word - that men are natural builders of idols, which every now and then they even call Yahweh, Jesus, Allah in good faith. They know this very well, and that's why they continue to tell it to us in many ways, knowing that we do not like to hear it, that we cannot even understand it, as we are too accustomed to our idolatrous and comforting rites. They help us not because they tell us who the true God is and how he is made (the Bible is also a great silence and a great absence of God), but above all because they tell us who and what God is not. By teaching us to identify the idols around and within us. The Bible is a great exercise in anti-idolatry because the biblical God did not make man his idol. Man was created to "Elohim's image", but did not become the idol of God. An artefact, but not an idol. He could become one given his beauty, having been created "little lower than the heavenly beings" (Psalm 8). The biblical God is in love with man, to the point of dreaming of becoming like him. But keeping him distinct and other than himself, he has not made man his idol. A choice paid by a very high price, because in order not to become the idol of God, Adam was placed in the freedom to evolve, to change, to sin, even to deny God and deny him again, or to transform him into the golden calf, to nail him to a cross. A very high price and an infinite value. When do we truly realize it?

The immense human dignity makes the deepest pitfalls of the different faiths creep right in the heart of religions, not outside of them. We can never start living a truly spiritual life unless one day, on a blessed day, we become aware that we have spent our life talking to ourselves or an idol, even if we were convinced to be speaking with God. On that day a new life may begin for us, in a great silence and a great void, where we discover and thank the prophets and become their fellow travellers, and re-learn another faith, perhaps not an idolatrous one.

We continue to produce idols, and we continue to call them God. And the prophets keep telling it to us. This is how they love us.

Download   pdf article in pdf (126 KB)

Follow us:

Who’s online

We have 414 guests and one member online

© 2008 - 2019 Economia di Comunione (EdC) - Movimento dei Focolari
creative commons Questo/a opera è pubblicato sotto una Licenza Creative Commons . Progetto grafico: Marco Riccardi - info@marcoriccardi.it

Please publish modules in offcanvas position.

This website uses “technical cookies”, including third parties cookies, which are necessary to optimise your browsing experience. By closing this banner, or by continuing to navigate this site, you are agreeing to our cookies policy. The further information document describes how to deactivate the cookies.