Grace to you
One may be inclined to think that criticism of religious practice would be at its most cutting from the lips of those who are “unbelievers”. Yet, according to the prophets of old, the harshest criticism of the religious comes from the mouth of God. Listen:
“I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams…I do not delight in the blood of bulls…who asked this from you? Bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me…I cannot endure solemn assemblies …your appointed festivals my soul hates…they have become a burden to me…even though you make many prayers I will not listen…”[Isaiah 1]
According to the prophets, God gets angry with religious people, whenever we begin to believe that it is our religious practice (Sunday worship, Holy Communion, Baptism, prayer, tithing, etc.) that impresses God as an end in itself. Here religion is idolatrous. From here it is a slippery slope to worshiping the way we worship and our religion becoming our God. This is one of the unique temptations that face religious people – and according to the prophets we keep falling for it.
God desires just and merciful relationships and our religious practice is meant to remind us of this. When our religious practice doesn’t remind us of this, the prophets say God will have none of it. James understood this: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” [James 1:27]
Prophets specialise in connecting cause and consequence and according to biblical prophets there is a direct relationship between the health of the most vulnerable of society (repeatedly symbolised in the “vulnerable trinity” of orphans, widows and foreigners) and the health of society at large. To neglect the vulnerable is to cause societal collapse. Conversely when the vulnerable are valued and prioritised the land and all the people will flourish. In other words, the best measure of society’s health is not the Rand/Dollar exchange or Stocks index or GDP figures but rather whether the marginalised are the centre of society’s compassion or not.
There are few things that must anger God more than the stealing of money, resources and services meant to liberate the poor and heal the desperate. This is especially true when stolen by people in the name of caring and liberating the poor. It is this travesty in our recent history that the Zondo Commission gives testimony to and when added to our long history of injustice it is not surprising that our land hovers close to the edge of collapse.
The prophets of old would declare the imminent collapse of society as God’s wrath. Yet, God’s wrath is not punishment per se. God’s wrath is the refusal to allow the principles of God to be mocked without consequence. In other words the principle of society’s health matching the health of the “vulnerable trinity” will ultimately be applied. To flout the care of the “vulnerable trinity” of society without societal collapse as a consequence is like expecting the law of gravity not to apply to oneself when stepping off a building. Gravity doesn’t punish us, it just is. Similarly, God doesn’t punish us. God’s principles just are: prioritise the vulnerable and flourish or ignore the case of the widow and perish. The flourishing or perishing of every society throughout human history hinges on this principle.
May we have ears to hear, hearts to feel and hands to act.