For those who want a change from the Gospel
3rd before Lent – Isaiah 58:1-12
In today’s Gospel Jesus explains his relationship with the Law and the Prophets, what we would call our Old Testament. So what better week to concentrate on the OT passage? To understand it properly, and to apply it to our own lives, we need as always to look at the context. The text comes from the third section of the book we call Isaiah, generally recognised to come from an unknown prophet known as Trito-Isaiah, or Third Isaiah. His predecessor Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah, spoke to the people in exile in Babylon and announced that the covenant relationship with Yahweh was still on, and that he was about to act to free them from exile, and to take them back to their homeland, where the Temple would be rebuilt and they would enjoy a life of complete restoration and shalom – wholeness and harmony. But things didn’t exactly work out like that. Yes, the city walls and the Temple were rebuilt, but the national life wasn’t. Trito-Isaiah paints a picture of a society every bit as oppressive and unjust as that which caused them to go into exile in the first place, and his contemporaries like Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, Joel, and Habakkuk show us a society in a real mess. That kind of mess, I believe, is pretty similar to the way of the West in the 21st century, as we cope with those twin legacies of our enlightenment culture, introspection and individualism.
The chapter is laid out like a dialogue between God and the people. First of all Yahweh instructs the prophet to cry out against the people, and then the people respond with an angry question to God: why have we done all the right religious things but you haven’t answered our prayers? The rest of the chapter is God’s response to this accusation, along with glowing promises for the future if they only get things right. But the question is a good one: whey, when religious believers do all the right religious activities and disciplines, is life still in a mess?
First of all, I think we have to have some sympathy for the ‘devout’ Jews. They have lived through the national traumas of the destruction of their homeland and 50 years or so of exile. Yes, God has rescued them, but where exactly do they go from here? Do we need a Temple in order to worship? We’ve managed somehow while we were in Babylon. And what about the monarchy? If we haven’t got a dynastic king, who will be in charge? And how do we get over the national trauma we’ve lived through? We know from two years of covid how things are very different now, in so many ways, so just imagine how they would recover, or how the Ukraine as a nation will quite literally rebuild itself.
So the conditions are just right for a good bout of selfishness. Introspection is all about my own religious practices. I do all the fasting stuff which is required, because it’s apparently required of me. But coupled with individualism, I do it for myself, and I am blind to anyone else. These two sins, quite understandable in the context of post-exilic uncertainty, are what God condemns them for. Their fasting is self-seeking, and leads to conflict and violence. Their selfishness means that while they go through the motions they ignore the cries of the poor and hungry, including their own workers. I have seen churches act in the same kinds of ways when the chips are down and the future seems uncertain. Mission to the outside world goes out of the window, and all the energy goes onto keeping the religious show on the road, keeping the building open for two hours use on a Sunday morning, and making sure nobody messes with the liturgy.
But then God drops the bombshell – what I want is a different kind of fasting. One which cares about others rather than yourself. One which rolls up sleeves and works for the benefit of others and the downfall of injustice. One which loves others instead of pointing violent fingers. That’s the way to get your prayers answered, says God. Live like that and I’ll hear and answer and bless you. It’s all about priorities, and as Jesus might say, loving your neighbours as you love yourselves. And that means living for their benefit, not just your own.