OK, let’s cut to the chase.
This week’s lections have two readings that present an easy-peasy contrast: Isaiah 58 and Luke 13. The Isaiah passage addresses religious people who act out the stage play of their religion (holding fasts), but then fail to act out their religion in their everyday lives. The Luke passage highlights a religious person who is so focused on the stage play of his religious rules that he cannot see or understand real religion (healing) taking place right in front of him.
In both cases the religious people are the oppressors. Obviously, for anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear, all one needs to do is read both passages back to back, then say “Don’t be like them, amen,” and sit down. The End.
And if that’s enough for you, or your congregation, or whatever reason you are reading this piece, then great. Go forth and lay it on ’em.
But for me, it doesn’t end there. I keep coming back to one phrase in the Isaiah passage:
“… if you loose the yoke of oppression …”
I’m stuck there. In fact, the phrase has haunted me ever since I read it. And I keep asking myself two questions:
Are we part of the yoke of oppression?
And if so, what are we going to do about it?
I guess, before we answer those two questions, we’d better agree on terms. Looking at various online dictionaries, we come up with the following definitions for oppress and oppression:
- to burden with cruel or unjust impositions or restraints
- to subject to a burdensome or harsh exercise of authority or power
- to lie heavily upon (the mind, a person, etc.); to weigh down
- to put down; subdue or suppress.
- to press upon or against; crush.
As I think about my congregation, or my friends, or myself, I have a hard time relating to these definitions. I don’t impose cruel or unjust restraints, or exercise authority harshly, as far as I can ascertain in self-reflection. And I don’t know anyone in my church, or among my friends, who does. The purveyors of oppression seem to always be “out there” somewhere — on the news, in the paper, headlining blog stories and indignant posts on Facebook.
So, when God says to “untie the yoke of oppression,” my first reaction is Who Me? If I was a cruel dictator of a junta-run country, or a greedy CEO of a sweatshop, then I could see the application pretty easily. But since I am neither of those things, I sit back, relax in my certainty that, once again, the Word is talking about someone else, and wonder what’s for lunch.
But it gnaws at me. The passage is pretty clear: the people of God are to untie the yoke of oppression. How then, God, can we do this?
Go back to the definitions. Are there persons of authority and power who burden people with cruel or unjust impositions or restraints, or who exercise their power harshly? Certainly there are, all over. God says, What are you doing to oppose them or to change them?
Let’s dig deeper. Are there organizations that are cruel or unjust? Certainly there are, all over. God says, What are you doing to oppose them or change them?
Still deeper. Are there systems — the justice systems, the educational systems, the economic systems — that are cruel or unjust in their effect? Are there systems that weigh down people, that suppress people, that crush people? Yes, yes there are, all around us. God says, What are you doing to oppose or change them? Or is your inaction allowing them to continue?
That cuts deep, but let’s go one more layer. God says, Are your actions supporting those systems? In other words, are you a participant in the systems?
NOW this has come home. Yes, none of us is actively oppressing others — but are we supporting those who are? When we participate in the economy, are we part of an oppressive system? If we buy products from a company that we know pays a subsistence wage, or exploits laborers overseas, are we guilty of oppression?
When our lawmakers consider unjust laws, what are we doing to affect that? Do we stay informed enough to know when that is happening? Do we let our voice be heard? Does our congregation take a stand? Or are we scared of rocking the boat, of being seen in a negative light, so we just tsk-tsk and move on?
When we know that oppression is happening in our town, or our state, or our nation, what are we doing to fight it? Are we calling it out? Are we working to change it? Or are we just glad it isn’t us?
And, what about the results of the oppression? What are we doing for the persons who are weighed down, pressed down, or crushed by oppressive individuals, organizations, institutions, and systems? Are we caring for them as well? The passage gives examples:
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
If we, the people of God, are going to live up to this passage, if we are going to practice our faith in the way God desires, then we must work both ends of the equation:
- We must oppose oppression wherever we find it, seek to change it, and make sure we are not passively supporting it.
- We must care for the victims of oppression even as our own family.
Today’s lections challenge us to look honestly and deeply at the persons, institutions, and systems that we are part of or can influence, and to actively try to loose the yokes of oppression all around us. May God help us to do this. Amen.