An important fact to remember when discerning the meaning of the texts of the Old Testament prophets is that there is in these texts none of the nuanced distinctions that we insist define the relationship of religion and politics. Distinguishing between religion and politics is a modern preoccupation. In fact, in terms of the biblical vision, such a distinction is absurd. There is in the Bible only one reality- religion. By religion is meant that which expresses our ultimate concern and in terms of our ultimate concern there is always a decision between serving the one, true God or idols of our own making.
For the prophets of the Old Testament, what we call politics is merely a form of religion, and for the most part, what we call politics is a religion that serves false gods.
And therein is the meaning of today’s denunciation of worldly political arrangements and pre-occupations from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah designates the political authorities of his time as being the successors of the rulers of Sodom and Gomorrah, the two legendary cities from the Book of Genesis whose corruption was such that it provoked the cities were consumed by fiery destruction.
The Old Testament prophets insists that our ultimate concern is not the political, but God, and when we substitute our politics for God we will destroy ourselves. As it was then, so it is always. The temptation to elevate any worldly reality, political or anything else, as our ultimate concern is extremely dangerous. The prophet’s Isaiah’s allusion to Sodom and Gomorrah is apt. Our idols will ultimately consume us.
This insights would leave us in nothing but fear if not for the opportunity that the prophet Isaiah presents- the opportunity for repentance and conversion.
We need not be consumed by our idols. We can turn away from them. There is a different path set before us, one characterized by our refusal of idolatry and our acceptance of the one, true God.
God does not will our destruction- that is what the idols of our own making want.
But what do we want? What do we choose?
What is our ultimate concern? Is it God or something else?
Christ the Lord, who is the fulfillment of the prophets, denounces those who would use people’s respect for the institutions of religion as a means towards profit or personal gain.
His stinging criticism of the Pharisees is not because the Pharisees are religious, but that some among the Pharisees are using their office as teachers and leaders in the Israelite religion to serve their interests in attaining wealth, power and honors. Religion, for these Pharisees, is no longer directed towards its proper end- the love of God and neighbor, but it has become a means that they will use to get whatever it is they desire. The corruptions of religion emerge from, not religion itself, but from our desires.
Religion is meant to be a way of life through which we serve the Lord, not serve ourselves.
Christ has come to restore religion and to rescue us from idolatry.
If the ultimate concern of our religion simply becomes getting from it what we want, rather than being a way of life in which we imitate Christ, then the sin that bedeviled the Pharisees is our own.