Opening The Old Testament
Justice Rooted in Love: Reflections on Isaiah 58:1-9a
These people are equally incredulous at their God! "Why do we fast and you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" (58:3) Can't you see, God, how deeply pious we are? Don't you notice how careful our fasting practices are? We are very strict in our application and following of the rules of the fast. Don't you care? But God answers with scorn. "Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day, and oppress all your workers" (58:3b). The implication is that while these supposedly pious folk are making a great public display of their fasting, they are not so religious when it comes to their treatment of those who work for them. In other words, their fasting is a show, having no effect on their human behaviors.
"Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist" (58:4a). Their oppression of their workers takes a nasty and brutal turn as they physically assault their workers in addition to arguing among themselves about something or the other. Their fasting has become a mockery of God, not a means to honor God. So, God responds accordingly: "Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high" (58:4b). In the clearest of language, God rejects the fast of Israel as unlistenable and useless to God. And God goes on to make fun of their carefully arranged fasting practices. "Is such a fast that I choose a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to YHWH?" (58:5)
In fact, that is precisely what the people have called their fast! They have offered public humility, bowed their heads low like marsh reeds, lay on the ground in scratchy sackcloth and filthy ashes. Surely, this is what our God desires; we have always fasted like this. We know that God asks this of us! But they are wrong, just as Micah and Hosea and an earlier Isaiah have said. This fast is not at all what God has in mind.
"Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?" (58:6) Attention to justice, especially freedom for the oppressed, is God's definition of the fast these people ought to be doing. "Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?" (58:6) Public practices of false humility, great displays of bowing and scraping and the wearing of foul clothing, have nothing to do with the fast God has in mind. Perform deeds of justice, and you will be fasting as I would have you fast, proclaims this God.
"Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will spring up quickly; your vindicator will go before you, and the glory of YHWH shall be your rearguard" (58:8). I do not think the prophet is saying that if we fast exactly like this that God will always be available to us, healing us of all our ills. That is what the people thought would happen if they fasted in their very public and ostentatious ways. Being attentive to acts of justice, says the prophet, brings its own light into the world, and to be concerned with the oppressed brings healing to the spirit, not automatic riches and comfort from God.
"Then you shall call, and YHWH will answer; you shall cry for help, and God will say, 'Here I am' (58:9a). God is always available, attentive, attuned to those who work for justice. God is far less interested in great shows of religious practice. This writer stands in the long 300-year history of the prophets of Israel who had showed no interest whatever in public displays of piety. Justice, they said again and again, is the way to the heart of God.
So it was for this Isaianic writer and so it is with the one we call Christ, born in a manger, come to remind the world again that justice is the hallmark of God's people.
John C. Holbert is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, TX.