Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
We like to doubt. Our first response to good news, especially great news, is often disbelief. Ancient Israel was no different. After the prophet Isaiah proclaims the coming of the servant of the Lord who will bring deliverance, joy and singing, Zion voices her doubt. This reading starts on a note of doubt: “Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me; my LORD has forgotten me” (Isaiah 49:14). We look to Scripture for hope and inspiration, but this reading begins with a moment of commiseration—the doubt we feel, the struggle to believe was not absent in Israel. When we experience times of difficulty, mourning, hardship, we can listen to that doubt more closely or even give in to it.
Does God forget?
Zion’s doubt is framed in terms of forgetting. (Zion is a hill in Jerusalem, which is used in the Bible as a poetic symbol for the whole nation.) The prophet is announcing a time of restoration, but Zion’s claims that God has forgotten: He’s forgotten his people, their story, the relationship he has with them. If you think about it, remembering is how we even have a story to talk about. For God to forget would be the end of the story. Yet memory and the story it contains point to a future, either a future full of hope (which Isaiah proclaims) or to the despair of forgetfulness. God responds to Zion’s doubt by reassuring her that he does not forget.
Like a Mother
He insists that Israel can rely on him, can trust in him, because he will not forget his people, their story, their struggles. He responds to Zion’s doubt with a question: “Can a mother forget?” To explain the depths of his care for them, he introduces the idea of a woman with a nursing baby—the Hebrew word ul, translated as “infant” in the Lectionary. For him to forget his people would be like a mother forgetting her baby. The prophet identifies two physical connections the baby has with its mother—birth (“the son of her womb”) and breastfeeding (ul). What’s remarkable about this is that modern medicine has shown that the emotional bonding that takes place between a baby and its mother has a chemical component. The chemical oxytocin is released by the woman’s body both during birth and during breastfeeding, causing her to bond with her child. The bonding between mother and baby is one of the strongest human bonds there is, making a powerful metaphor for God’s undying love for us.
Yet God’s love goes beyond even the strongest human bond. He says, “Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Isa 49:15). God’s memory goes beyond our memory. Even if we forget our story, who we are, what our responsibilities are, God remembers us and takes care of us. It is hard to think of a mother forgetting her child, but sometimes babies are abandoned by their mothers. My mind goes to the picture of a baby in a basket, left by its mother on the doorstep of a kind-hearted neighbor. As terrible as that kind of abandonment may sound, the most terrifying example of a mother forgetting her child is the evil of abortion. Abandonment by a parent involves a kind of false forgetting—a disavowal of the story as it stands, a shutting out of the truth of the situation. God does not abandon us. He does not forget the story that we are writing together with him. He always remembers. “For the Lord will not forsake his people; he will not abandon his heritage” (Psalm 94:14 RSV).
Forgetting in Old Age
Sometimes, real forgetfulness can set in. Many have had the crushing experience of looking into the eyes of their aged parents with Alzheimer’s or dementia and not seeing the flash of recognition, when Mom or Dad even forget the names of their children. Why is it crushing? Because that’s the end of the story. When you can’t remember, you can’t tell the story of your life, you can’t recount the stories of your children. You start to lose touch with reality. Memory is reality. This forgetfulness that comes with old age is not sinful, but it introduces a hard-to-overcome separation between the past and the present. Yet God never forgets. He remembers our stories and assures us that we will not be forgotten.
Some people are so terrified of forgetting their own stories that have tried to record every moment, a practice known as “life logging.” Life loggers wear a camera that takes a picture every 30 seconds or so to record the ins and outs of their lives and make sure that none of it is forgotten. But even if we do forget, God remembers. In this very brief passage from Isaiah, the Lord confronts our doubt and despair with his love. He assuages our fear that he might forget us, forget our story, forget who we are. He reminds us that he remembers better than anyone else, better than a trove of digital life-logging photos. He even remembers the things about us that we have forgotten. He knows us better than we know ourselves.