Ash Wednesday

The community remains spiritually sick

charcoal black
Photo by Antoine Rault on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

March 2, 2022

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 58:1-12

This is a message important enough to shout, to sound the trumpet/ram’s horn in accompaniment. The people need to hear these words. This part of Isaiah, often called III Isaiah, reflects the problems of the community once they arrived back in Jerusalem/Judah. They had heeded the words of II Isaiah (chapters 40-55), and taken the risk of rebuilding and reformulating the community. Now, problems have arisen. Verse 12 suggests that the rebuilding of the physical structures has stalled. 

More importantly for the prophet, the community remains spiritually sick. Economic and social injustice plague those called to witness as God’s people. Perhaps the returning exiles enjoyed more prosperity than the ones who had remained after the exile. Some farmers may have endured a poor harvest. For whatever reason, some in the community had more money, food and resources than others. Those who had more did not provide for the needs of those who had less. The economic disparity led to some form of oppression: indebtedness, or being sold into slavery. The problems of the community had morphed from oppression by the Babylonians to internal polarization. The Lord saw the problem as serious enough for enough noise to get the people’s attention. 

Even though one can talk about the historical situation in this passage in at least general ways, the conflict within the community has timeless elements. Some of the people practice fasting, and wear sackcloth and ashes in an attempt to build a relationship with the divine. One must admit that those who fast take something about their relationship with the divine seriously. The phrase in the NRSV translated as “humble ourselves” may refer to some form of physical self-punishment. The Lord, speaking through the prophet, ridicules the efforts to act humbly: “to bow down the head like a bulrush.” The verse creates the image of the wind blowing over a bulrush. The prophet speaks the inspired word that one cannot build a relationship with the divine while ignoring the suffering of the rest of the community. The prophet does not disparage fasting in itself, but rejects the practice apart from seeking justice and compassion within the community. 

The promises in verse 10b-12 about what will happen if the community practices both justice and charity seem imprecise (“your gloom will be like the noonday”), but they speak to health within the community and relationship between the community and the divine. As suggested above, the prophet believes that the lack of progress on the rebuilding program results from the spiritual sickness of the community. Perhaps the lack of progress represents either the logical result of a lack of spiritual health, or divine retribution. 

This chapter connects with the rest of the prophetic corpus. First Isaiah, in the opening chapter, condemns economic injustice, corruption in the courts, and poor treatment of the vulnerable (12-17). Amos calls for fair treatment of the poor and the afflicted (2:6-8). Micah contains the most scathing rebukes of those who treat the poor unjustly, using the language of cannibalism to describe the way the rich treat the poor (3:1-3). Amos also declares that the Lord rejects the worship of the people because of their injustice (5:21-24). Micah famously uses the image of a court, in which the defendant seeks a “plea bargain” to assuage divine anger. No amount of sacrifice will substitute for the practices of humility, kindness, and justice (6:1-8). The very injustices that the people in the returned community of III Isaiah practice now formed part of the reason the people were sent into exile in the first place. Any hopes of the prophets that the people would learn from their mistakes proved unfounded. 

One can readily see the connection between the ideas in this passage and the testimony of the gospels. Luke 4:18 clearly invokes verse 6 of Isaiah 58, along with Isaiah 61:1-2. Luke 4 plays a significant role in the portrayal of Jesus’ mission for the gospel writer. Matthew, in the sermon on the mount, teaches that one can practice fasting, an important spiritual discipline, in a way that does not lead to spiritual growth (6:16-18). In that case, some people fasted to gain attention from others. 

A well-known passage near the end of Matthew indicates that the clear demarcation between those approved within God’s judgment and those disapproved was the effort to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and take care of the vulnerable (Matthew 25:31-46, the sheep and the goats judgment scene). Clearly, the concerns of this passage appear throughout scripture. Taking care of the needs of others, protecting the vulnerable, and attending to the whole community form a foundation of religious ethics in both testaments. 

We will preach this passage on the first day of the season of Lent. If any mainline church members fast, Lent would serve as a logical time for that. The preacher might not connect with the congregation by talking about fasting. Certainly, we would receive a blank stare preaching about wearing sackcloth and ashes. We associate Lent with other practices.  Most of us will impose ashes. We associate Lent with the tradition of giving something up. Isaiah would tell the church to go beyond these practices. 

The prophet gives the preacher the opportunity to call the church to the kinds of ministry described in the passage. Wearing ashes on our foreheads serves as a witness to the world. Giving something up during Lent reminds us not to take our possessions too seriously. Yet this passage calls the church to become active in the lives of others, to work for justice, to take care of people’s needs, and reach out to the vulnerable. That kind of ministry becomes part of the church’s repentance, and builds the spiritual health of the community. Verse 6 could be interpreted to mean to choose outreach instead of fasting, but given the whole of scripture, shouldn’t we encourage devotional acts, while proclaiming the necessity of working to end oppression, injustice, hunger, lack of shelter, inadequate clothing, economic and employment unfairness? Whatever we make of the promises in verses 8-12, we can proclaim the spiritual health of the individual and the community, and connection with the divine.