Every once in a while, a Lectionary text will have some optional portions. These are usually noted by parenthesis in the chapter and verse reference. Often, the optional portions, while in line with the theme of the rest of lesson, contain some material that preachers and listeners might find troublesome. Like I said, it happens every once in a while. This week, however, three of our four readings have optional sections. And if you take my advice from yesterday and read chapter 5 from the beginning, you could end up with a seriously long set of scripture readings come Sunday morning.
Which is not a bad thing.
As this week’s preacher, the Parish Administrator asked me which options I would like to use for Sunday so that she could get started on the Sunday bulletins (She doesn’t know of my plan to expand the Gospel lesson (I should really tell her about that)). I decided that I thought we should hear the optional text in Isaiah, but decided to skip it in the Psalm and 1 Corinthians lesson. Some of that decision was based on length and some on the content, but as I read the optional verses from Isaiah 58, I knew we had to hear them. They begin with these words from the prophet to a people who have become hollow religionists rather than followers of the LORD their God, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” (NRSV, emphasis mine)
Those words that I have set in bold above are the verses we use in advertising our donations to the food pantry here in town. Sure, they are taken out of context, but I don’t think the intention is harmed in it. As the LORD seeks to draw his people back, he reminds them that the goal of their religion shouldn’t be help for themselves, but it should be for the good of their community, especially the weak, hungry, and powerless among them. (For more on this, listen to this week’s Sermon Brainwave) The people of Israel were called to be a light to the Gentiles. We are called, in Sunday’s Gospel lesson, to let our light so shine before others that they might see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven. In neither place is the call to a life of faith about punching a ticket to heaven or felling good about yourself. Rather, the life of faith should be outward focused, as in “Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.” The world is full of people who will sell you the false theologies of self-help and prosperity, but if we take time occasionally to read the stuff that is inside the brackets, we find that God has bigger and much better plans for this world.