Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday carries with it an annual tension between empty, external and genuine, radical acts of piety.

Matthew 6:3
But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Photo by Tyson Dudley on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

March 6, 2019

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Commentary on Isaiah 58:1-12

Ash Wednesday carries with it an annual tension between empty, external and genuine, radical acts of piety.

With ashen crosses smudged on our foreheads, we hear Jesus say, “Beware of practicing your piety before others … ” This same tension is a central aspect of Isaiah 58.

Textual Horizons

Isaiah 58 is a call to preach. The gist of the sermon is a call to substantive faithfulness. What does this sound like, this preaching? Like the blast of the shofar (“trumpet”), associated with the voice of the Almighty,1 the word of the Lord warns the hearer: intent matters.

The Lord comes down hard and unequivocally on the poorly intentioned praxis of the religious types. Specifically, the manner of the fasting does not sit well with the Lord. It’s a case of metaphorical (of course!) divine heartburn. In the eye of the beholder, the people’s practice is impeccable. For all intents and purposes, the people are seeking after the Lord. The casual observer might think this is a case study of religious praxis well-done.

Isaiah 58.3 encapsulates the rub that runs throughout the pericope. The will of the “religious” and the will of the Lord are at loggerheads:

Religious folks: Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

The Lord:            Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.2

The first half of the verse captures how the people are miffed at the Lord’s lack of response. Why do we fast if you’re not going to pay attention? This is for show, after all. With bitter irony comes their second question: Why do we humble ourselves, but you don’t see it? If there is humility in their questions, it is merely a thin veneer covering self-interest. The people’s fasting is duplicitous. No matter how it looks from the outside, this fasting is condemned for being curved inward — for being disingenuous, seeking the Lord’s favor all the while oppressing the laborer, the employee, the worker.

In short, the substance of shofar’s blast is clear. There is an incongruity between what the Lord desires and what the people offer. Fasting, no matter how “good” it looks or who well it is done, if piety is turned inward and not accompanied with fair treatment of others, is empty.

Rather than perpetuate vacuous religious praxis, the Lord calls the people to a different kind of fast — a different kind of faithful praxis.

            Is not this the fast that 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?

            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? 3

The contrast here is clear between the people’s intentions and the Lord’s will. Bring your praxis into line with your heart, and vice versa. Religious praxis, no matter how beautifully executed, is meaningless when the love and mercy of the Lord are not extended as our own love and mercy.

Homiletical horizons

Religious folks of all stripes and patterns ought to pay close attention to this text. Religious practice without the heart of God’s love and mercy is empty.

One of the definitions of sin used by Martin Luther, rooted in Paul’s letter to the Romans, is incurvatus in se — being curved in on oneself. To say it differently, to put oneself at the center of the universe is sin. Being turned in on oneself leaves little room for God, as God becomes a means to an end — an object used to secure happiness, wholeness, or wellbeing for our plastic piety. God is not encountered as Eternal You (Buber) but as Eternal It — Eternal Vending Machine — Eternal Means to some selfish, self-serving end.

Being turned in on oneself impacts the individual’s vision.4 The other — whatever species of fellow creature — becomes a means to my individual aim. The vision to which the Lord calls us (through Isaiah) is one not of self-concerned navel-gazing but of outward care for the other.

It is important to be clear. The Lord’s big complaint here is not so much about fasting itself. It is inwardly-turned fasting and with inwardly-turned fasting any inwardly-turned piety that focuses on the self without turning the gaze outward towards the living God and the neighbor.


  1. See also Exodus 19, wherein the sound of the Lord’s speech is associated with the blast of the shofar.
  2. Isaiah 59.3a
  3. Isaiah 58:6–7
  4. Of course, being turned in on oneself is not limited to the individual. Communities, congregations, political parties, businesses, systems are all susceptible to turning inward. Given the Ash Wednesday context, I’ll focus on the individual, each of whom will receive an ashen cross on their brow.