The words of Isaiah the prophet are collected in the book named after him in the Bible. The prophet spoke the word of God from 740 – 700 B.C.E., during the reigns of 4 very able kings of Judah. [The Bible scholar Alec Motyer says “None of the 4 kings under whom Isaiah ministered were fools politically, economically or militarily.”]
The first chapter of the book of Isaiah is one of the set passages for today (Sunday 11 August) in the lectionary. It tells of the terrible state of affairs in Judah, with the people feeling helpless and hopeless.
The prophet issued his rebuke and command in the capital, Jerusalem, where animal sacrifices and other signs of religiosity such as fasting were a daily affair
The prophet said: Stop this nonsense! God is repulsed by your fasting and your sacrifices. Speaking in the voice of God, he said:
“When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1:15-17)
The prophet was livid. He ranted and raged. He pleaded. He threatened. He said “God hates hypocrites! You are hypocrites! God hates what you are doing! God will punish you! Unless you admit you are hypocrites and begin to do the right things, God will not listen to your prayers. He will listen only if you show you care about justice and about the marginalized.”
God will have no truck with the illicit marriage between religious observance and hypocrisy. The people of God know God is often explicit about his hatred of unholy alliances. Here’s one example:
I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds.What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips? For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you. If you see a thief, you are pleased with him, and you keep company with adulterers. You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit. (Psalm 50: 9, 16-20)
The state of the nation of Judah/Israel and the city of Jerusalem was not much different from that of Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur today. In the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen these things happening:
- Despite denunciations of the Shiite sect of Islam (Malaysian Muslims are Sunnis) by the government, our Deputy Prime Minister went to Iran to attend the installation of the new President of Iran, a Shiite nation.
- Despite the dismantling of preventive detention (read “indefinite detention without trial”) laws after years of study, the government now proposes to bring back such laws.
- Despite assurances of freedom of speech, the government has repeatedly used sedition (read “inciting rebellion”) laws against many, most recently Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee for their Bak Kut Teh Ramadan greeting and Maznah/Chetz, the Muslim dog trainer.
If those 3 are not examples of hypocrisy, I don’t know what that word means.
Additionally, despite official indicators, we are sensing an explosion of crime:
- Dr Delilah, a much-loved gynaecologist had her thumb and fore finger sliced off in the course of an armed robbery.
- Children have been abducted.
- The founder of Arab Malaysian Bank was shot in broad daylight.
- The founder and head of MyWatch, whose goal is to expose corruption in the police force, was gunned down – and the Home Minister, before any investigation had been conducted – claimed the police were not responsible.
- The Pope’s country is Catholicism, an expression of the Christian faith. Our Prime Minister invited the Pope to install an envoy in Malaysia. And when the envoy spoke on the subject of the name of God in the voice of Catholicism, voices linked to the government brayed that the envoy must be kicked out.
We know our nation doesn’t have to be like that.
We long for a better nation.
Yet when we raise these issues, some government-linked voices are saying “Chinese go back to China” and “Indians go back to India.” When Ambiga raised the long list of faults in the conduct of elections, people high up in Umno, including politicians holding office, wanted to cancel Ambiga’s citizenship!
We long for a better nation.
We do not long to leave. We long for reform. We long for death to hypocrisy and restoration of good neighbourliness. We long for the kind of city and nation which pleases God not only in ritualistic observances but also, and more so, in behaviour.
Another set text for today is Hebrews 11, which commends to us the faith of Father Abraham, our ancestor. This text tells us that like Father Abraham, we must live in faith; we must obey our call and trust the promises of God.
We have been called to move out of darkness into the Kingdom of God, to live under God’s reign, and to proclaim it.
We, who make up 9 % or more of this nation’s population, have been called to stay and to work to usher in peace and justice. We have no other homeland. This side of heaven, this is our homeland.
We long for our homeland to be better, more like our final homeland, heaven, that domain of peace and flourishing. And our longing is fulfilled by our active engagement in the public square, which is already filled with so many players, including (see graphic):
- Public institutions: the police, the elections commission, the Islamic authorities.
- Civil society, non-religious: SABM, Suaram, the Bar Council, United Voice.
- Civil society, religious: Sisters in Islam, Perkasa, Pembela, Islamic Renaissance Front; NECF, CCM, MCCBHT.
- Political parties: Umno; DAP, PSM, PAS, PKR.
There is a Tamil proverb which says: if the roof of your neighbour’s house is on fire, beware; your house is next.
We need to be watchful, because what we have to say is unpopular, like what Prophet Isaiah had to say: God hates hypocrisy.
We often feel like we are swimming in the opposite direction from others in our pond. We need constant reminders that we are not alone.
We must support and challenge one another to actively do good. We can only do this by making time to meet each other more regularly, outside of Sundays. Or at least to call and chat and encourage one another.
We must constantly remind ourselves that our longing, energy and passion comes not from our assessment of competing voices and alliances and throwing our lot in with one or more of them – though we certainly should. We must beware of the “wisdom” of the 4 “very able” kings of Judah.
As Psalm 33:17 says, “The warhorse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue.”
Our confidence comes from the knowledge that we are believers in whom the Spirit of God dwells (1 Corinthians 3:16). On that basis, we pray, listen and obediently serve, even in unpopular ways, even in unexpected places and groups.
As we name, abhor and denounce hypocrisy in the public space, let us never forget to look in ourselves first. As we seek to make our homeland better, let us pray regularly for watchfulness, protection and forgiveness.