The Fast That God Chooses

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany
Isaiah 58:1–12
Matthew 5:13–20

Last week I quoted Søren Kierkegaard, who said, “Christianity has taken a giant stride into the absurd. . . . Remove from Christianity its ability to shock and it will be altogether destroyed. It then becomes a tiny superficial thing, capable of neither inflicting deep wounds nor of healing them.” I then suggested a number of ways that we disciples of Jesus are called to inflict deep wounds on those powers that want to keep people isolated, fearful, and enslaved. Today in our gospel reading Jesus tells us that we are the salt of the earth, and we have an example from the book of Isaiah of a prophet rubbing salt in one of the wounds he has inflicted.

In this instance, the wounding is done at a very sensitive spot: a religious people’s religious sensibilities and practices. The prophet takes aim at piety divorced from justice, and his shot lands with poetic beauty and rhetorical force.

The passage begins with God instructing the prophet to bring an indictment against the people: “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins” (v. 1). Then, in sarcastic tones, the accusation continues, “Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near God” (v. 2).

There is clearly a yawning gap between the people's assessment of the situation and God’s. While they think they are sincerely seeking to draw near to God, in God’s opinion they are rebellious and sinful and have forsaken God’s laws. The gap widens further in the first part of verse 3, in which the people complain, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Not only do they not share God’s judgment that they are rebellious, but they also go so far as to bring a counter-accusation: God does not recognize or respond to their acts of worship and devotion. If anyone has broken the covenant, they suggest somewhat peevishly, it’s not them; it’s God.

These people are about to get schooled.

The historical setting of this exchange is likely Judea and Jerusalem in the first few generations after the return from exile in Babylon. A passage from Zechariah indicates that the people fasted during the fifth and seventh months—imagine a period of abstinence similar to Ramadan—for at least seventy years following the exile. They fast in mourning for their temple, which the Babylonian armies destroyed, and their king, whom Nebuchadnezzar deposed.

The exile is a cataclysm the severity of which we cannot fully comprehend. For a people steeped in the teaching that their land was given to them by God and that the ruling dynasty of David would last forever, to lose king and temple and be driven off the land is traumatic beyond description. A huge chunk of what became the Hebrew Scriptures gets written during the post-exilic period, as the people, their leaders, and the scribes and prophets try to make sense of this world-shattering turn of events. In a very real sense they are rebuilding their national and religious identity from the ground up.

And so they fast. I mean seriously fast. To observe two months of abstinence with only one month of relief between, and to keep it up for seven decades—nearly three generations—is almost inconceivable. So it would be a mistake to condemn the people for insincerity or the hollowness of their worship. They are utterly serious about their penance. They do not hear the sarcasm in the prophet’s words, “Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways.” In their minds that is an utterly true description of what they are doing.

And what have they got for all their trouble? Nothing. Nada. Zip. They’re fasting like it’s going out of style and God doesn’t even seem to notice. And so they bring their complaint: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” In fact, for most of the second half of the book of Isaiah the people have been accusing God of ignoring their petitions. In Isaiah 40:27, for example, Israel says, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God.”

But God sees things a little differently. The people ask God for “righteous judgments,” and complain that God has not responded. God’s reply is that they have deprived their neighbors of justice and righteousness. “Look,” the prophet says, “you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high” (vv. 3b–4). In his commentary on this passage, Bo Lim says, “Even though Israel has been attentive to the ritual ordinances of the Law, they have completely neglected the ethical demands of it. The people believe they are the victims, when in fact they are the victimizers.”

This is centuries before St. Augustine will differentiate between the City of Man and the City of God and Martin Luther will propose his concept of the two realms, but the people the prophet addresses here seem to have created the same unfortunate dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. They pray and fast and perform the rituals of worship, but they are not willing to place their social and economic dealings under the same umbrella of faith.

In response, God says through the prophet:

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? 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? (vv. 5–7).

In the Torah, especially Exodus and Leviticus, God gives meticulous instructions about the way God wants the Israelites to worship. Actually, “meticulous” is an understatement. The writers of these books go into mind-numbing detail about how to present offerings, the times and purposes of religious festivals, even what kind of thread to use in the construction of the tabernacle. It’s one of the principal reasons that people who make the mistake of trying to read the Bible straight through from Genesis to Revelation almost invariably give up around Exodus 30 or so.

The point is that God does care about the way the people worship God. But interspersed throughout these instructions are other commands that show that God also cares deeply about how the people treat one another. Fair dealing in business, caring for widows and orphans, providing a social safety net for the most vulnerable members of the community, and welcoming immigrants and strangers all get serious attention throughout the Torah.

When the prophets come along, these ethical concerns come to dominate the conversation. In fact, the instructions about worship practically disappear, and pretty much the only mention made of the people’s worship at all are condemnations of religious practice divorced from justice. We see it in Amos 5, in Micah 6, and here in Isaiah 58, to name just a few.

God asks rhetorically, “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?” It reminds me of the debates that used to rage (and maybe still do in some circles) between advocates of evangelism and social action. Which is more important, to share the gospel with someone to ensure his eternal salvation or to provide for his temporal needs for, say, food, drink, and shelter? The problem is that’s a false dichotomy. If you read the Bible carefully, it’s hard to escape the notion that the gospel—the good news—has as much to do with feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and liberating the oppressed as it does with saving the soul. Prayer and fasting cannot be separated from works of justice; the fast God chooses encompasses both the spiritual and the physical, both the soul and the body, both the eternal and the temporal.

Bo Lim puts it this way: “Fasting, when done properly, is not a means of earning favor from God; it is a means of spiritual transformation…. [It] is an attempt to align one’s priorities [with] the will of God. [The prophet] is now calling for a fast, not from food, but from affluence, indifference, and privilege so that the community of faith might live in harmony with God.”

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks a similar message to another community of faith, urging them to live in harmony with God. His words come down to us in this community of faith as well. He says to us, “You are the salt of the earth…. You are the light of the world” (vv. 13, 14). We are those who have experienced spiritual transformation and therefore have the ability to practice the fast that God chooses: the fast that looses the bonds of injustice and breaks every yoke. Salt can be used to enhance the flavor of food or melt the ice off your sidewalk, but when it gets in a cut it stings. Light can illuminate one’s path, or allow one to read or carry on one’s work after dark, but it can also reveal things we would rather keep hidden, and if focused properly it can cut through steel. Loosening bonds and breaking yokes necessitates confrontation and hands-on involvement. In the same way, being salt and light puts us in direct contact, and sometimes conflict, with the Domination System and its representatives. To practice the fast that God chooses we cannot remain aloof or above the fray.

Just like the people to whom the prophet speaks in Isaiah 58, however, we can fast the wrong way. We can cover our light with a basket. We can lose our saltiness so that we are good for nothing but to be thrown out into the street. We can hide from engagement with a world that glorifies violence and self-promotion and excess, or we can get down in the trenches to advance peace and self-giving and sharing. We can hide our light under basketfuls of excuses—what can one person do? The cards are stacked in favor of the rich and powerful, so why bother? If we speak out we might get in trouble; we might alienate those who disagree with us; we might lose our friends or our job or our tax-exempt status.

But Jesus is having none of it. Neither is the prophet of Isaiah 58. Worship without justice is meaningless. Salt that has lost its saltiness is worthless, and deserves to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. I understand the concerns many people have, that a church like ours should be welcoming of many different viewpoints, and that the sanctuary—and specifically the pulpit—is not the place for partisan politics. I agree. But when we see leaders of either party taking actions that directly contradict the gospel of Jesus Christ and the clear witness of Scripture—and especially when we see them hide behind their religiosity or claim to be representing God in doing so—if we neglect to name such actions for what they are we have effectively covered our light with a basket. We have allied ourselves with the people who bowed their heads like a bulrush and lay in sackcloth and ashes, but then served their own interests on their fast day and oppressed all their workers.

On Thursday I participated in a rally and press conference on the steps of First Congregational Church on Broad Street to protest the President’s executive order denying migrants from seven majority-Muslim countries entry into the United States. More than two hundred people, including 150 clergy persons—Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, and more—stood together to speak with one voice to declare that policy abhorrent in the sight of God and unworthy of this nation of immigrants. We wore our stoles and robes and kippot and kufis and held up signs and banners in front of the TV cameras. We set our lamp on the lampstand so it would give light to the whole house.

Of course, that effort was only a beginning, and only one avenue for shining light and sprinkling salt. We must each find our own ways to live out the gospel, and together as a community of faith must do so as well. This is not a crusade against the GOP, or even against any individual leader. But we must resist the spirit of nativism and bigotry we have seen unleashed in recent months. We must shine our light into the dark corners where the vermin of hatred hide, to flush them out into the open. We must rub our salt in the open sores of xenophobia and racism, bringing the stinging reminder that these attributes are wounds, not badges of honor.

The prophet of Isaiah 58 speaks of light as well. If the people heed his words, forgo their selfish fasting and practice the fast that God chooses, he says:

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…. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday” (vv. 8, 9b–10).

In other words, there is hope.

You are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. Go be salty. Go shine.

Robert Turner