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Isaiah 58:1-9a

February 3, 2014

For ancient Israelites in the Old Testament, fasting was not a regular practice. The Old Testament required fasting on just one day each year–the Day of Atonement. On this day the high priest entered the “Holy of Holies” (the innermost chamber of the temple) and made an offering of incense. Then the sins of all the Israelites were symbolically placed upon a goat, and the goat was driven into the wilderness. So this was a day for Israelites to show remorse for their sins–through fasting and bowing and other rituals of humility–in preparation for the people’s sin being taken away.

Every fifty years the Day of Atonement had an additional significance. On this day a trumpet (a shophar made from a ram’s horn) was blown and the Jubilee was proclaimed: all debts were to be cancelled, all land returned to its ancestral families, and all Israelite slaves freed. The purpose of the Jubilee was to wipe out poverty every fifty years, returning everyone to their original condition and resources.

The Day of Atonement, and perhaps the annoucement of the Jubilee, are the setting for this passage from Isaiah. Verse one is the announcement of Israel’s sins on the Day of Atonement. But Israel’s sins are not obvious–at least not to the Israelites. They love to worship God and to study God’s law and God’s will. They perform the proper rituals and display proper humility. They are the epitome of being religious and committed to God. They are so good at being religious that they wonder why the nation continues to suffer from devastations. They ask God, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Isaiah, speaking for God, responds: What kind of fast does God want on the Day of Atonement? Just refraining from eating? Just wearing sackcloth? Just bowing down in worship? Is that an acceptable fast? Will that bring about your forgiveness and restoration? No.

Then Isaiah announces what God requires in a true fast, in a true display of contrition and repentance: loose the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free, share your food with anyone who is hungry, share your home with anyone who is homeless, and share your clothing with anyone who is naked. Isaiah is perhaps announcing the ideal of Jubilee: do justice by eliminating poverty; stop being concerned primarily about your own self-interest and instead take drastic action to bring about wellness for the most vulnerable and poor.

If the people will engage in these acts of contrition (which show genuine remorse for selfish gain at the expense of others), then it’ll be a new day in the land, and new skin will grow over the old wounds (that’s what “healing” means). God will protect you in front and from behind. You will call on God for help and God will immediately say, “Here I am.” This is a stirring passage, and the verses that follow continue the images of healing and renewal.

And yet, I am bothered by this beautiful passage. First of all, I find it tiresome to always blame national calamity on the sins of the people. For instance, when Haiti was struck a few years ago by a horrendous earthquake that killed a shocking proportion of the population, a TV evangelist blamed it on a supposed “deal with the devil” that Haitians had made centuries before. That is immoral nonsense. Likewise, the people of Sri Lanka were not to blame for the giant tsunami that swept the shores of their nation. Yes, some of our national disasters are our own fault, stemming from our own bad and selfish policies; but not all of them. So I get tired of hearing the Old Testament prophets almost always blame the victim.

Secondly, I think it is questionable to claim that the doing of justice will result in divine protection and national wellbeing. Does poverty reduction give divine protection against national invasion or famine?

On the other hand, Isaiah is quite right to claim that the doing of justice and the relieving of poverty bring about national healing. Nothing makes a society more unwell than injustice, lack of compassion, structural unfairness, and systemic poverty. Isaiah is right to believe that a new day–spiritually as well as materially–will dawn if fasting includes doing justice for those who are impoverished and oppressed.

Isaiah’s vision will always be a challenge to the church and all those who call themselves God’s people, because we always have a tendency to put the emphasis on the rituals. It’s easier. For instance, when I go into a Christian bookstore I am always struck by the presence of all the religious trinkets for sale. Many of the products are cheesy and sentimental and seem to me to be at drastic variance with the teachings of Jesus and the prophets. Judging from our bookstores, we have sold our soul to shallow consumerism. But even if the products are serious and useful, the basic problem is that the Christian faith is more easily expressed with a poster or cross necklace or a religious book than with the self-sacrificing work of doing justice for the vulnerable. Jesus saw this problem all the time. That’s why he says that it’s not enough to say, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Doing religious things, even spectacular religious things, cannot replace doing actual justice.

Would we be willing to institute a national Jubilee that eliminates debt? For our society today this is perhaps neither possible nor desired. But just a contmeplation of Jubilee principles will give us a sense of how committed we ought to be to making fundamental changes.

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