“Few Are Guilty But All Are Responsible”

A Sermon for Wednesday, March 9, 2011 ||  Ash Wednesday ||  Isaiah 58: 1-12

The Rev. Margot D Critchfield


Listen to the prophet Isaiah:

“Thus says the high and lofty one who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “Shout out, do not hold back!  Lift up your voice like a trumpet!  Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins… Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God…

As if they were a nation that practiced righteousness…

Through the prophet Isaiah, God calls his people to repent.  Not just some of his people, but all of his people. Not individual sinners for their personal sins, but an entire nation for its communal, corporate sin.  Because as rabbinic scholar Abraham Heschel once said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

And those are words worth thinking about this Ash Wednesday morning as we listen to Isaiah:  “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”  What might that mean for us?

Isaiah is speaking to a people who have turned away from God without even knowing it.  They still go through all the right motions and religious rituals, but the reality is that they’re relying on themselves, rather than God. Despite their religious observances, their lives are fueled by self-will, rather than God’s will. Everywhere they look they see mind-numbing, heart-hardening violence and injustice; and because they can’t understand God’s apparent inaction in the world, they’ve turned back to relying on themselves, instead of God.  To use the Biblical language—they’ve rebelled against God, they’ve turned away from him.

Oh, they say they want to know God and to be in relationship with God, as if they’re a people who uphold moral righteousness and are obedient to God’s will. As if they’re a nation living in right relationship with the world and in loving obedience to their God.  As if they’re a nation that practices compassionate justice, healing, and reconciliation. But no. The truth is that they’re none of these things.

Too many of their religious leaders are pre-occupied with dissention, debate and dogma; too many business leaders are pre-occupied with materialism,greed and lavish living; and too many political leaders are pre-occupied with self-interest, infighting, and partisan pride.

So God commands Isaiah to hold the people accountable…to “…shout out and not hold back…” to lift up his voice “like a trumpet.” Isaiah is a bearer of bad-news, but Isaiah is a prophet, not a reporter. It’s his job to call God’s people back—all of God’s people—with whatever it takes. Because Isaiah knows few may be guilty, but all are responsible.

He knows that all are responsible for the finger-pointing  and self-righteous accusations that are causing such bitter divisiveness within their nation.  All are responsible for the arrogant and vindictive spirit they’ve been displaying towards other nations, excluding them from God’s plan. All are responsible for the increasingly oppressive social and economic conditions that are rife with homelessness and hunger at one end of the social spectrum, and with rampant greed and corruption at the other. All are responsible for the pervasive sense of hopelessness and low-morale that has insinuated its way into the hearts of the people.  All are responsible, because all are God’s people.

Isaiah knows, too, that while all are responsible,  all are offered another chance.  So Isaiah announces the good news, too:  The good news that all are God’s people, so all can share in God’s promises.  And so he boldly proclaims, “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil; if you offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like noonday.”

If God’s people repent, turn back, and start representing God’s interests in the world instead of their own—the interests of the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and the powerless—then the Lord will be their “rear guard.” If they work for social justice, moral righteousness, and merciful love–as a people, as a nation—then all will see their “light break forth like the dawn” and their “healing… spring up quickly.”  All will see that when they call, the Lord answers, “Here I am.” And all will see that by doing the work of healing and reconciliation, they too will be healed and reconciled.  An entire nation will be healed and reconciled.

If they care for God’s people and God’s creation as God does, God will “guide them continually, he will satisfy their needs in parched places and make their bones strong.”  Their nation will be called “the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” The repairer of the breach and the restorer of streets to live in!  Can you imagine?

Old Testament scholar Paul Hansen writes that the message of this particular passage of Isaiah reaches across the centuries with more power and passion than any other; that we cannot hear these words without a heartfelt sense of being addressed directly by God.  “Look around you,” God seems to say.  “Look at the injustice, the oppression, the division. And you call this a day ‘acceptable to the Lord’?”

Surely to read this passage in light of our morning newspapers— our own bearers of bad news—is to be convicted by the prophet’s words as powerfullyas his original listeners. The Census Bureau reports that  43.6 million of our brothers and sisters in this country are living in poverty—(14.3%) that’s the largest number in the 51 years since poverty estimates have been published.  A record 50.7 million Americans have no health insurance, and a record 2.9 million have lost their homes to foreclosure.

The U.S. now leads the advanced world in income inequality—the worst it’s been since the 1920s– and according to a recent UNICEF study of child well-being, the United States ranks 20th out of 21 developed countries.

Few are guilty, but all are responsible.

It’s not easy to hear. It goes against our deeply individualistic American psyches. But the reality of communal, corporate sin is deeply Biblical.  There’s no escaping it. Christ died for it.

Few are guilty, but all are responsible.  They’re words worth thinking about this Ash Wednesday morning.  After all, dare we call this a day acceptable to the Lord?  Amen.



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