By Karen Hamilton
…learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17, NRSV).
Isaiah is not kidding. The Biblical prophets have many comforting and challenging characteristics but kiddin’ is not one of them.
Biblical prophets strive to be faithful to the living God, and they strive to do so in ways that are poetic, insistent, dramatic, colourful and often eccentric.
And they say what they mean.
They say what they believe to be the just and compassionate will of God and they hope, if not expect, that for the well-being of all people and indeed of the world itself, that they will be listened to. So when the Prophet Isaiah – living, moving and having his being in difficult, even dire, political and economic circumstances – tells his people and tells us to learn to do good, he means what he says.
Isaiah defines the learning to do good not only in the generalities of seeking justice, but also in some very specific ways. He talks about rescuing the oppressed, defending the orphan and pleading for the widow. In other words, caring for the most vulnerable in society. In Isaiah’s time and place, women and children without financial, structural support were very often in dire circumstances. To put it bluntly, they starved or were oppressed at one and the same time.
The Biblical prophets can be very creative in their witness to the living God, but in Isaiah’s call for the defence of the most vulnerable in his society, he is not being creative at all. Isaiah puts himself in very direct line with the witness that has preceded him. Both the Books of Leviticus and Ruth, to name just a couple of the imperatives of the Old Testament, remind us to leave the edges of our fields, our wealth and our resources, for the many who have less and are thus vulnerable to starvation and oppression.
In our time and place, there are few, if any, who are more vulnerable and oppressed than those children pressed into forced labour. Their minds and bodies are given over to the profits of others. They may not technically be orphaned, but they are deprived of the capacity to learn and play and journey towards adulthood at a pace that nurtures and strengthens them, that enables them to reflect and dance.
We know this is wrong. We know we are called to seek justice for these most vulnerable ones. We are called by God – through Isaiah – to discern very specifically what to do. Our energy, commitment and persistence need to be exercised in every breath we take, every prayer we utter, every conversation we have. The children must be free. We must learn how to do the good of God so it may be so.