Reflections on Isaiah 58

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works?  Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” – James 2:14-17

There is a form of faith that sounds very pious and holy, it can spend all kinds of time and energy and money on things that look religious, and yet misses that faith is – at its core – about relationship.  Relationship with God, and with the people around us.  If we do all the right religious things and believe all the right theological truths, yet miss how our lives are actually being lived out in relationship with God and others, we’ve actually missed the point entirely.

Paul puts it this way

“If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.” – 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

We read in the beginning of the book of Isaiah that God is not impressed with religious observances or beliefs that are disconnected from the way we treat one another, particularly those who are vulnerable or in need.  And so too, once more as the people are becoming re-established in the land after the exile, there is a need to be reminded of what it means to live in relationship with God.

As we read Isaiah 58, we see that the people are actively religious:

  • They seek God day after day
  • They delight to know God’s ways
  • They ask God for righteous judgments
  • They delight to draw near to God
  • They (believe they) are humble before God
  • They fast [go without food, practice symbols of mourning, like wearing sackcloth and ashes]

If we just looked at that, it sure seems impressive.  But Isaiah 58 lets us know from the start that something has gone badly awry.  “Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” (v.1)

They do all these great-sounding things, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God. (v.2 emphasis mine).

Something’s missing.  But what?  God says:

  • You serve your own interest on your fast day
  • You oppress all your workers
  • You fast only to quarrel and fight and strike with a wicked fist

Here we start to get a hint of what has gone wrong – more is to come.  The practice of faith has become self-serving, going through the motions in the hope of personal advancement.  Those in power and with wealth use it to get ahead at the cost of those around them.

(any of this sounding familiar?)

As we read through the rest of Isaiah 58, we come to a thundering message about what God truly cares about in terms of how we go about offering real worship:  Here’s a link, because it really just needs to be read.

What did you notice?

What does God call on the people of Israel, on us, to do because of our faith?

In the NRSV, one of the striking patterns is the ‘when’ and ‘then’

When

  • we loose the bonds of injustice and undo the thongs of the yoke, letting the oppressed go free  (notice that Isaiah repeats this message about being ‘yoked’ three times – yoke being a farm implement by which animals are hitched to a plow or cart for work.)
  • we share our bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into our house
  • we see the naked and cover them (i.e. those with no clothes / shelter), and not hide from our own family

Then

  • our light shall break forth like the dawn
  • our healing will spring up quickly
  • our vindicator will go before us
  • the Lord will be our rear guard
  • the Lord will hear and answer our prayers

And just in case we missed that; God speaks again in Isaiah:

If

  • we remove the yoke from among us
  • [if we stop] the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil
  • if we offer our food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted

Then

  • our light will rise in the darkness, and the gloom will be like midday
  • The LORD will guide us continually
  • The LORD will satisfy our needs in our own times of struggle
  • We will be like a watered garden and like a spring
  • our ruins will be rebuilt and raise up the foundations of many generations

Let’s stop there for a moment and come back to the word ‘yoke’.  There’s a connotation of being captured, enslaved, stuck in a situation of harsh work with little reward.  In Nehemiah (contemporary with this section of Isaiah), we read in Nehemiah chapter 5 that the people were taking advantage of each other economically; offering loans at interest that people couldn’t repay, and taking their homes and vineyards and fields as payment.)  It’s highly likely, with the other economic references in view, that the yoke being talked about here are economic practices that are not only taking advantage of the poor, but keeping them poor; becoming rich off of their suffering.

Is this meddling, yet?

The heart of the message is simple: it doesn’t matter how religious we look, sound or act; unless that faith reflects a concern for the whole being of our neighbor – spiritually and physically, it isn’t genuine faith, and God flat out says God’s not obligated to answer, or respond to those who seek God to bless a faith that is harming others.

Yet for those who grasp that to love God and the ways of God is intrinsically related to loving others and understanding our need to care for each other, God promises that our light shines, our prayers are heard, that God will be our strength and that like the broken ruins of Jerusalem which were being rebuilt, our broken places will be renewed.

Check out Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount How does it connect to Isaiah here?  

And lastly, God turns to the religious observance of fasting – notice that God isn’t against fasting, God’s not against expressions of worship, but to pay attention to the underlying motive and method: not doing our own thing or looking to it to get an advantage, but to remember what it’s about and delight in it; then we will get out of it the blessing for which it was designed, delighting in the LORD, being connected (fed) to our heritage, remembering that we are part of a bigger story of God unfolding in this world.

 

It doesn’t matter if we share pious memes on Facebook, or listen to Christian radio, or think we’re taking back America for God by voting this way or that – it comes back to what Paul had to say about love: without love of God, of others, and of ourselves, all the great stuff we say or think or do won’t matter.  Because we won’t understand why it’s all there.

In our presently hyper-politicized and hyper-polarized culture, the danger is that we read passages like Isaiah 58 and start brushing it off as ‘liberal social justice’ stuff.  Or, perhaps pat ourselves on the back because we believe all these things are important – without actually doing anything about it.  In my experience, I’ve seen some of the most conservative folks theologically up to their elbows in helping people out and walking alongside the hurting.  And I’ve seen some who are “enlightened” progressive, believing all of this stuff is important and yet not getting their hands dirty.   There’s a great need to start asking some systemic questions as faith and life connect in ways that break preconceptions and stereotypes.  And there’s also the need to recognize our deep need for God’s loving presence, grace and power in the midst of our service, or else we’ll just be doing toxic charity.

How do you see God challenging our time and context today in light of Isaiah 58? 

What do you find specifically challenging?