Commentary on Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]
Given that the Gospel Lesson for this Fifth Sunday after Epiphany reminds us that Jesus did not come to abolish the Torah or the Prophets, we might consider one of these ancient, Hebrew Scriptures for our preaching focus this week.
Fortunately, the Revised Common Lectionary provides a powerful prophetic text from the book of Isaiah for our First Lesson.
Wouldn’t it be ironic if we read the positive words from Matthew 5 about Jesus’ understanding of his “Bible” out loud from our Christian lecterns and then continued our (typical) practice of sidelining the Old Testament lectionary readings? Matthew continues, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law [torah] until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18, NRSV).
So, what can we glean from the harvest of Isaiah 58?
Isaiah 58 provides an opportunity for us to lift up some of the quintessential concerns of the prophetic literature — injustice and oppression, the vulnerable and hungry. The passage portrays a people seeking to understand how to worship God truly and rightly but failing to integrate the various aspects of their spiritual lives. They are fasting, but their fasting does not seem to affect their actions toward others.
Religious ritual when unaccompanied by social action is self-serving. It is empty.
Let’s examine the passage’s originating context more closely to understand the theological issues at play here. Isaiah 58 was written during a time of deep uncertainty for Israel. The Babylonian exile has deported a number of important leaders. But now some of them are returning to the land. The stabilizing institutions of the temple and the monarchy have been wiped out. But perhaps a glimmer of hope about their return shines as well. Uncertainty brings about anxiety, anxiety about God’s future for God’s dear people. What will the future hold? Should we rebuild the temple and reestablish David’s throne? Perhaps one but not the other?
How do we worship God in our own land without a temple?
The oracle of Isaiah 58 can be difficult to follow. We have to pay attention to the speakers. It is a conversation ultimately between God and the people. Verses 1-9a can be divided as follows: first, we hear a command from God to this post-exilic prophet to issue an announcement about the people’s rebellion (verses 1-2); then, we hear a response, a complaint really, from the people (verse 3a); finally, God provides two answers (verses 3b-4, 5-9a).1
We will focus on the people’s complaint and God’s response.
The people’s complaint is succinct: we fast but you, God, do not seem to see it.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (58:3a, NRSV).
We engage in our religious rituals of worship and lament, but our God does not care. This complaint focuses on a single action – fasting — to the exclusion of other actions; this omission seems to be important since God will respond by naming other forms of worship. Fasting is of course associated in the Old Testament with pious activity as well as penitence and mourning. It is not a meaningless activity. We should not allow ourselves to use this passage to critique too harshly religious rituals. They are not inherently legalistic or futile.
The people complain that God ignores them when they fast.
God responds twice to this complaint. First, God notes that the people’s fast does not lead them to better behavior (verses 3b-4). It does not lead them to treat their neighbors or workers well. The ritual does them no good.
In fact, their fasting is selfish; it is oppressive. It is violent.
So, God calls the people to look upon their behaviors. The word “look” in fact divides God’s response into two sentences. Elsewhere in the prophetic literature, other behaviors such as sacrifice are also critique with this same reasoning. These actions of worship do not result in ethical treatment of people.
The act of fasting is not integrated into the other areas of the worshippers’ lives.
God’s second response (verses 5-9a) begins with a series of rhetorical questions. God seems to be mocking the people’s fasting. It is inconsequential because it does not relate to anyone other than the one who fasts. Then, God, in a totally surprise twist, redefines fasting! The behavior is no longer to be associated narrowly with personal bodily actions such as bowing.
God is concerned with the prosperity of society, with liberation from injustice, with freedom. God’s kind of fasting is breaking bread with the hungry.
This response concludes by noting that God will indeed answer God’s people when this type of fasting takes places. This is how to get the ear of God. The people complain that God does not notice them so God tells them precisely how to get God’s attention.
It is unlikely that the author of Isaiah 58 wishes to discredit completely the function of ritual exercises and cultic practices. They are necessary and deeply meaningful practices. But they always have the potential to become selfish, to become divorced from social engagement in the world. Isaiah 58 reminds us all of the need for social justice.
Perhaps Isaiah 58 details for us how to be the salt of the earth and the light of world.
1 Joseph Blenkinsopp. Isaiah 56-66 (Anchor Bible 19B; New York: Doubleday, 2003), 176. There is, in fact, a third divine answer in verses 9b-12, which is an optional set of verses for today’s reading.