As human beings, we come into the world with needs. New
babies need milk, diaper changes, human touch, soothing, temperature
control, shelter, communication, emotional mirroring, safe spaces,
tummy time, and lots and lots of sleep. As far as I can tell, our
needs as humans grow from there.
Our needs remain complicated as well. We have physical
needs for food, drink, clothing, shelter, and equally important
social and emotional needs to be heard, to be understood, to play, to
find peace, to connect. Nonviolent Communication teachers share
lists of universal human needs, the one I use most often lists more
than 90 of them.
Because there are so many, and because life is so
complicated, it is rare for us to have our needs met at the same
time. Nonviolent Communication theory suggests that everything we
say and do is really about trying to get those needs met, and I
haven’t seen any reason to disbelieve it. It may help to know that
needs for peace, contribution, learning, purpose, and celebration
exist – so some of the needs make space for us to want to do things
that impact others.
The Isaiah passage opens up for me the dream of having
needs being met, perhaps even to have all of them met all at once.
Without Isaiah dreaming it, I’m not sure I could conceive of this.
Furthermore, the dream isn’t of some weak, minimalistic set of needs
being met. It is all of them being met well. Using the direct,
physical needs of thirst and hunger, Isaiah speaks of being offered
water, wine, milk, and rich food – without having to even pay for
These were not foods that average people were eating –
these were the foods of the rich, and Isaiah proposes that God wants
all the people to access those good foods. This is an opening to
thinking about life with God, life in relationship to God, life that
is shared under God’s vision of how things are supposed to be.
How things are supposed to be is incredibly disconnected
from how the world actually was, and how it actually is. This
passage comes from the end of Second Isaiah, which dreams of a
different life for the exiles who God is going to lead home. The
people have been in captivity in Babylon, and their captivity is
about to be transformed. The hope of the passage is that in coming
home to Ancient Israel, the people will also come home to God’s ways.
Walter Brueggemann writes,
“The initial verse, perhaps in the summoning mode of a
street vendor, offers to passersby free water, free wine, and free
milk. This of course is in contrast to the life resources offered by
the empire that are always expensive, grudging, and unsatisfying.
Israel is invited to choose the free, alternative nourishment offered
by Yahweh. Thus, although we may ponder the metaphor of free food,
the udnerying urging is the sharp contrast between the way of life
given in Babylon that leads to death and the way of Yahweh that leads
to joyous homecoming.”1
The vision of Yahweh for Ancient Israel, which I believe
is still the vision of God for all people, is for the people to have
enough to survive AND thrive. The world itself produces plenty, but
our societies distribution patterns prevent the “enough” from
getting to the people. According to the Poor People’s campaign, in
the US today, 43.5% of US population are in poverty or are
Those old systems of the empires – the ones that bring the wealth
created by the many to the top – those are still happening.
It is funny to think of our needs being met, not only
because there are so many of them, but because even the idea of
universally satisfying the basic physical human needs is so far from
reality. What would it look like if all people had enough to eat –
of nutritious and delicious food? Can we quite imagine it? What
would it look like here and elsewhere if the housing stock was mold
free, well insulated, repairs were up to date, water was safe to
drink, AND homelessness was eliminated? It is a thing to ponder.
Can we imagine universal health care in this country, and one that
works? Where people can afford both preventative care and
necessarily life-giving measures? What about this – can we imagine
a world where there are enough mental health care providers for all
who need them, and all are offering top notch, compassionate care
(and the mental health care providers aren’t over worked, are
adequately paid, and have time and energy to do necessary self care)?
Oh what a world this would be!! Ready for one more? Can we imagine
a society with expansive parental leave policies for people at every
income level, with excellent nursery and day care for babies AND
nursing and adult care for adults in need, provided by people who are
adequately compensated for their imperative work, and trained to
offer it at the highest levels?
Can we even dream it? Those are the BASICS, and Isaiah
invites us to dream them. Those aren’t quite milk, wine, and rich
foods. Those are merely clean water and enough bread for everyone.
Even with these pieces met, a lot of problems would remain. But if
the BASICS were met, it would matter a lot. And it is POSSIBLE.
This is not an unattainable dream – the capacity to make it happen
I think it is a dream that Isaiah pushes us to
contemplate. If we don’t dream a little bit, we can’t know what we
are working towards, and we have no chance of getting there.
Of course, if we had a system where basic needs were
met, it would radically upend the economy, and society. It is a very
BIG dream. To have people’s needs met would mean that some of the
value of their labor would have to return to them, and that more the
value of all of our labor would be needed to care for those who
cannot labor. We can’t have a system that cares adequately for all
people AND one that allows the work of most to enrich the few.
In addition to dreaming a dream of human needs being
met, Isaiah’s passage also condemns the system as it was for how it
worked. It indicts the labor system for enriching the empire at the
expense of the labors. It also called out the thinking that allowed
it, called people out of the idea that working harder within the
system would find them a way to get to satisfaction. This is one of
the hardest lessons for us today. Working harder in rigged systems
only exhausts us, it does not get us what we need. We still have a
system where people “spend your money for that which is not bread
and your labor for that which does not satisfy,” because the labor
is not permitted to bring satisfaction!
God’s dream is NOT a system of competition, of forced
labor, or even of economic gain over another. God’s dream is NOT one
where people have to work harder than their neighbors into to fight
for the scraps they need to survive. This is true BOTH with regards
to food and health care AND with regard to love and beauty. God
wants us to have what we need, and the earth is capable of providing
it, but not when people are exploited for other’s excess.
I suspect is is this system of thinking that is
reflected in the later words of the “righteous” and the “wicked”
– the ones who are willing to let go of the systems of exploitation
of the empire to move into God’s vision are the righteous, and those
who continue to participate in it and be co-opted by it are the
“wicked.” This isn’t just me. Brueggemann came to the same
conclusions 😉 (and that makes me feel SUPER smart.) “’The
wicked’, I suggest, are not disobedient people in general. In
context, they are those who are so settled in Babylon and so
accommodated to imperial ways that they have no intention of making a
positive response to Yahweh’s invitation of homecoming.”3
Between all of this, and the echoes from the Psalm, I’m
wondering us and about how well we are doing “making a positive
response to Yahweh’s invitation of homecoming.” How well are we
able to leave behind the systems and thought patterns of oppression
and competition to move into a brave new world? How interested are
we in the possibilities of the present and the future?
For me, some of the process of freeing myself from the
systems of oppression come in the practices of Sabbath-keeping and
meditative prayer. It is EASY to get pulled in to never-ending
productivity, but when I STOP trying to be productive, I’m more able
to figure out what the goal of the production is anyway! It is easy
to get pulled into a roller-coaster of emotions with the 24 hour news
cycle, but when I stop and get quiet, I can hear which parts of what
is happening I’m most able to respond to in a useful way. The times
of quiet in my life are when I can hear my own soul, and the Divine
prodding, when I can let go of how I’m supposed to present myself,
and simply be. And unless I’m doing those things, I’m VERY easily
swayed by the systems of oppression.
This is where spirituality intersects with both justice
work and my own well-being. It isn’t healthy for us to live in the
levels of anxiety that modern life produces, but it isn’t easy to let
go of i either! (In a different sort of church, that might merit an
“amen.”) It is hard to focus on what needs to be done to build a
better society and world, particularly when dumpster fires are
happening all around us – but the capacity to build focus is part
of the gift of spiritual practice, as is the process of being able to
Beloveds of God, are we finding the ways to listen to
the Holy One? God’s guidance is worthwhile – the Psalmist even
finds it worth clinging to. Are we taking the time for rest, for
Sabbath, for prayer, so that we can have those needs met and be able
to envision a world where many needs are met for all people? The
invitation is given to us – to be fed, to rest, to be filled, to be
satiated. May we receive it, and pass it on. Amen
(Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998),159.
for Policy Studies, “The Souls of Poor Folk: A Preliminary Report”
Rev. Sara E. Baron
First United Methodist Church of Schenectady
603 State St. Schenectady, NY 12305
March 24, 2019