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? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
Isaiah 58 appears to have been written in Judea during or immediately after the exile. Isaiah 58:12 looks forward to the day that the ruins will be rebuilt, the walls repaired and the city streets restored. To this end, the people prayed and fasted. Fasting is a ritualistic appeal to God in a time of distress. Those who fasted abstained from food, clothed themselves in penitential clothing (“sackcloth and ashes” Isaiah 58:5) and made ritual prostrations, (“bow” and “lie”, also in Isaiah 58:5).
In response to their fasting, the Lord said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Well, those words aren’t actually in Isaiah, but the thought is.
Look, at the same time you fast, you satisfy your selfish desires, you oppress your workers. Look, your fasting is accompanied by arguments, brawls,and fistfights. (Isaiah 58:3b-4a NET)
Israel continued to break the spirit and the letter of the covenant at the same time that it prayed to God for deliverance. It is all the more amazing that the people treated each other so badly when they had suffered so much at the hands of foreign oppressors. Their experience in Babylonian captivity didn’t lead them to be gracious with each other; it led them to put themselves first and to seek advantages at their neighbors’ expense. In other words, it taught them to live like Babylonians!
In Isaiah 58:3-12, the prophet highlights the people’s unfaithfulness toward their neighbors. In Isaiah 58:13-14, the prophets uses similar language to underline the importance of the Sabbath requirement. The people must treat the Lord’s holy day with respect. At various points, then, the prophet emphasizes both Israel’s “vertical” obligation toward the Lord and the people’s “horizontal” obligations toward their neighbors. In these verses, the emphasis is on the neighbor.
The law prohibited covetousness and required that the powerful treat their workers justly and generously. And of course unjust violence toward one’s fellow Israelites tore the fabric of the covenant that bound the people to the Lord and to each other. The prophet implies that the people even avoided their obligation to care for their own kin (Isaiah 58:7).
The “fast” that God prescribes, then, is the proper observance of the covenant’s requirements toward one’s neighbors: treat them fairly and generously. Don’t hide from them, but care for them in their need.
The prophet begins by observing Israel’s apparent concern with holiness.
They seek me day after day; they want to know my requirements, like a nation that does what is right and does not reject the law of their God. They ask me for just decrees; they want to be near God. (Isaiah 58:2 NET)
“You say you want to be holy,” the Lord says. “This is the way to show me that you mean it.”
The prophet continues with a conditional promise: if Israel will do what God requires, it will receive the deliverance and restoration it seeks.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. (Isaiah 58:8)
The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. (Isaiah 58:11-12)
As sons and daughters of Abraham by faith in Jesus Christ, and heirs of the covenants of promise made throughout the Old Testament, our religion demands no less than the religion of the law and prophets. As Jesus tells us in the gospel lesson for today,
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill . . . For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17, 20)
It is true that we are waiting for deliverance that encompasses more than political liberty. We are looking for the appearance of the heavenly Jerusalem, not the restoration of the earthly Jerusalem.
But whatever else the grace of Jesus Christ might mean, it is certainly no excuse to put on a religious show and then treat our brothers and sisters like crap.