Justice Rooted in Love: Reflections on Isaiah 58:1-9a

John C. HolbertLectionary Reflections: Year A
5th Sunday after Epiphany: February 6, 2011
Isaiah 58:1-9a

This text is part of our continuing exploration of the impact of the appearance of the Christ child on the world. Last week we examined the astonishing courtroom of Micah who found Israel guilty of serious breaches of justice and boldly rejected their absurd attempts to assuage the anger of God through ever-increasing offers of copious, and finally disgusting, sacrifices, from oil to rams, to first-born children. All these were judged completely inadequate, since God had no interest in such physical sacrifices. What God wanted instead was justice among the people, a justice that flowed freely from the love of hesed, an unbreakable and steadfast love, the sort of love that God models with the people.

In Isaiah 58 we find something of the same concern; once again Israel has misunderstood what their God requires of them. There is a serious discussion about the authorship and date of the disparate materials found in the book of Isaiah after chapter 55. Scholars are quite certain that the writings of the exilic prophet known as II-Isaiah end with that chapter. The succeeding eleven chapters, however, are seen as a kind of grab-bag of oracles, produced by writers in an Isaianic school, many of them working in the years after the return of the exiles to the land of Israel about 539 B.C.E. So perhaps during the next 100 years or so, prophetic authors continued the themes of Isaiah—injustice, idolatry, the dangers of treaties with foreign kings, etc.—and offered their own angles on these major concerns.

Isaiah 58 turns toward the proper definition of fasting as a practice enjoined by God. There are few clear references to the practice of fasting before the exilic period, but those few references are quite notable. At Saul's death in 1 Samuel 31, his friends, the Jabishites, fast for a full seven days in mourning for their deliverer. When the child engendered by David's adultery with Bathsheba dies, David, who has been fasting while the child is struggling to live, abruptly ends his fast to the astonishment of the court (2 Sam. 12:16, 21-23). These two ancient notices suggest that fasting as religious practice was well established long before Isaiah. However, the author of Isaiah 58 has quite obviously been angered by misuses of the ancient practice.

"Shout out, do not hold back" (58:1), the writer hears God say. "Lift up your voice like a trumpet!" And the author proceeds to do just that. "Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins." Exactly what those sins are remain unclear for a time, but this prophet moves quickly to accuse the sinners of false attempts to address their God. "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" (58:2). With withering sarcasm, the prophet announces that this sinful people imagines that they can speak to God freely, completely forgetting that their evil, which they do not recognize, makes God's anger against them very great. "They ask of me righteous judgments," a furious and incredulous God hoots; "they delight to draw near to God." In short, these people act as if nothing is amiss, that their God is anxious to hear from them in their worship.

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)

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