Commentary on Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]
This final section of Isaiah, known as “Third Isaiah” (Isaiah 56-66), is written to the residents of Jerusalem during and after Israel’s return in 539 BCE.
The back story (or historical context)
Taken as a whole book, Isaiah has addressed and tried to explain the Babylonian exile the Israelites had been under for 50 years, within the scope of a divine plan of judgment and restoration. This week’s reading resounds with instruction for people who have returned to rebuild their homeland. In the midst of joyful return, God issues judgment, and the prophet shouts as a trumpet to this indictment.
Same old, same old
Indeed, the people seem to believe they are doing all the right things and that it is God who has not been keeping faith (verses 2-3). They are genuinely confused. They think that by fasting they will please this God and bring favor. Indeed, they have been formed in this ancient practice, and instructed that it is a pious act to fast and humble oneself before God. It must have been a shock to hear the prophet’s strong rebuke of these faithful acts. How could God not be pleased?
The prophet interrupts their claims to piety by calling for a series of behaviors we recognize as themes throughout the prophets: to loosen the bonds of injustice, to share what we have with those who have not, to bring the homeless into one’s house, to give clothing and shelter to the naked, to reconcile with one’s family, to help the afflicted. These are more than one time actions. These are behaviors with broad social consequences, actions that will restructure relationships. God’s desire is not for singular, pious acts, but for a whole cloth dismantling of unjust relationships.
What kind of fast?
Instead of the traditional fast days, “the fast that I choose,” says God, is a whole new way of life. Isaiah reframes fasting as a practice. It is no longer the periodic fast days that serve to punctuate ongoing life. Instead, fasting is a new set of relationships within ongoing life. The fasting acceptable to God is a daily fast from domination, blaming others, evil speech, self-satisfaction, entitlement and blindness to one’s privilege. The fast that God seeks calls for vigilance for justice and generosity day in and day out.
The fasting God seeks requires and promises much more. The “if-then” pattern of verses 8-12 sets forth the consequences of such a fast. If the people choose the fast God sets before them, then they will have the blessing they seek: light, healing, help, protection, satisfying of needs, and, most centrally, the presence and guidance of God among them. The people, individually and corporately, cannot have a full relationship with God without a just relationship with each other. One’s piety is not disconnected from the rest of everyday life. When right relationship is pursued, God is among the people, “Here I am.” The glory and holiness of God is made manifest in this kind of godly fast.
We are often uneasy about such conditional “if-then” statements. Imagine, however, if the prophet said to the people, “There’s really nothing you can do toward your healing, wholeness, and the companionship of God. They just happen or they don’t, and it doesn’t matter what you do.” Such a dismissal of their agency as God’s covenant people would leave them more helpless and less accountable. Isaiah’s “if-then” language serves to include the people as actual moral agents in their relationship with God. The consequences of their moral choices affect this God. God is not a lone ranger, acting in isolation. No. This God expects a partnership with restored and restorative people. The people are participants in God’s life, agents in God’s desires for them.
This is especially true for residents faced with the daunting task of rebuilding the city and community following the ravages of exile. The people among the first generation of return, are fighting over who should rule with factions grabbing for power. All the while, these same leaders pray loudly and fast in false humility.
It would surely have been easy to believe that simply residing in Jerusalem, the holy city, made the citizens holy. It was equally tempting to believe that performing holy acts, like fasting and prayer, make one holy. Isaiah’s challenge shakes them from these comfortable religious assumptions. We, too, are prone to think that proximity to holy things (church, Bible, sacraments, pastor) makes us holy. This is, of course, idolatry. The only proximity that matters is our faithfulness to God which, Isaiah points out, is manifest in our faithfulness to the way of life God has provided. Therein lays our partnership and any hope of righteousness.
Throughout Advent and Epiphany images of darkness and light are central. God’s inbreaking is marked by light. This week’s reading uses this absolute contrast of darkness and light to describe what happens when the people allow this God to break into their lives. In verse 3, the people accuse God of not seeing their piety, while they are the ones in the darkness of gloom, unable to see God’s present work. However, once the people partner with God’s fast, “Your light will break forth” (verse 8), and “then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday” (verse 10).
We’ve been hearing about incarnation and God-with-us throughout Advent and Epiphany. Lectionary passages during Epiphany tell us something about this God who has been revealed in Jesus Christ. “Here I am” (verse 9) is declaration of the very presence of God among the people, as they participate in God’s purposes. God’s “Here I am” stands in tandem with Isaiah’s earlier “Here I am, Lord. Send me” (6:8), to confirm the partnership of God with God’s people. Isaiah reminds us that this is a God who a) wants more than a formal relationship with the people, b) expects us to be partners in bringing forth God’s purposes and c) is responsive to our choices. The good news is that God calls us, again and again, into God’s own life.