Following the Lord’s critique of Israel’s superficial sacrificial system in Isaiah 1:11-16, we encounter this passage:
Cease to do evil, Learn to do good; Seek justice, Correct oppression; Bring justice to the fatherless, Plead the widow’s cause. Isaiah 1:16b-17
Isaiah is communicating a sequence of moral development that avoids legalism in some important ways. It connects morality with two kinds of abstract ideas: those that are best understood attributes of God, and those that are the inverse and privation of those attributes in fallen man. The Israelites became legalists when they started following minute laws while forgetting the sources of those laws. The way to avoid a similar fate is to focus on the good and the just, and to understand the practice of the law in the context of who God is. The result is a spiritual morality based on emulation of these attributes of God, not a series of cultural practices in the process of ossification.
These verses don’t give us merely with a list, but a sequence. Beginning with an admonition to washing, Isaiah describes a sequence of actions primarily with the cessation of evil-doing. Then we are to learn to do good. In the same way, if you were giving directions to someone lost on the road, you might tell them to “Come to a complete stop, and then turn around.” It is a tragedy when all we say is “Stop,” and fail to give another alternative. This kind of stop-morality is the image of Christian preaching in the United States, and if we follow Isaiah correctly here, we should realize that it’s not enough to qualify as true preaching. If our scope of exhortation stops at any point on this list, we’ve failed to admonish people to morality in full.
Seek justice. Once the Israelites learn to do good the next step is the search for justice. Note that here we have a search, and not a discovery. The sequences that began with inwardness has moved to outwardness and extension. Once we have identified justice, we are to correct oppression. Building off a knowledge of evil we may see injustice clearly, and having learned to do good we may enthusiastically fight against oppression. Training in the individual prepares us for fighting in the social. And the former should lead to the latter, not as a replacement, but as a necessary progression as the result of the mastery of the former. Such a mastery could not be considered a mastery without such an outgrowth.
This passage wonderfully undermines two significant tendencies in our modern churches. The first is the tendency towards a moralism that focuses on the individual. These folks stop after “learn to do good.” Not realizing that moral spiritual development is a sequence, they have abridged the process and forestalled growth, which is why these churches so often to the outside world appear stagnant.
The second tendency is the focus on the more social side of the sequence, such as the correction of oppression and the alleviation of suffering. This is why theological movements away from morality and towards social justice are short-lived and are often transmuted into something else. Instead of realizing that communal restoration depends on personal restoration, people try to go for the fun-sounding social justice immediately without the trying individual cultivation required for the sustainability of such actions. To other Christians, these people seem confused and even contradictory. To the outside world, they do not seem like the threat or offense in the ways that, according to some good sources, they should.
The individual and the social so seamlessly fused as we do in this passage connote ideas of the Trinity. The final couplet even justifies this idea by invoking both God the Father and God the Son. In bringing justice to the fatherless, we mimic the Father in his adoption of us. In pleading the widow’s cause we mimic Christ who not only pleads the case of us his lonely bride but eventually takes the Church as his wife.
If what we’re seeing here is an actual sequence, and not simply a list, then the stakes are much higher than previously imagined. Every time I do evil, not only do I do evil in the context of myself, but I stall my progression on the list, becoming complicit in the evils of injustice, oppression, and abuse.