11/1/2015 1:50:35 PM
A reflection on Isaiah: Swallowing Death
In the movie Lawrence of Arabia, Anthony Quinn plays the role of a bedouin chief named Auda abu Tayi. T.E. Lawrence, a British army officer arrives to convince abu Tayi to join the side of the Allies during World War 1. Their discussion takes place in the evening during a feast. Everyone in reclining, laying down on the ground with pillows and chase lounges propping them up. As the talk turns to money, abu Tayi proclaims his poverty because, in his words, "I am a river to my people!" The wealth he receives is turned over to his people. He claims to have nothing.
This is a great line for a movie and also a foolish one. Auda abu Tayi is a ruler. He has power, weapons, and is famous. He always receives the best. Even in the scene, he is eating an amazing meal while his followers wait to receive what he doesn't eat. He's rich, powerful, and showcases his prestige by hosting a giant feast.
As Professor Anathea Portier-Young writes, "In the ancient near eastern world, such feasts provided opportunities for mighty rulers to display their wealth and power, foster loyalty, communicate their protection and providence, negotiate treaties, and render judgments. The feast was a hallmark of empire. But the shared meal also has a sacred and intimate character. It brings pleasure and satisfaction. It engages the senses. It establishes and strengthens relationships."
Today's text from Isaiah shows God throwing a feast where everyone attends. The powerful and the weak, the oppressed and the oppressors, the rich and the poor, all gather at God's table. God assembles the best food for this amazing meal. But at the meal, God does not eat. God doesn't touch the food or the drink. Instead, God swallows something else entirely. God devours death.
But God doesn't just consume death. The language of shroud and sheet in verse 7 is more than a reference to a death shroud. God is swallowing up all that covers, shapes, and defines us. Our cultures, way of life, thoughts, and actions are consumed by God at this Holy Feast. By taking everything we have and experience, God is opening us up to a new future where God, and not our experiences, will define what happens. And that's what today, this All Saints' Day is about: a God, as Prof Portier-Young shares, "de-creates the order of life and death and makes possible a future for God’s people beyond death and destruction." God is giving us a new future and inviting us to live out that future today.