One of the great privileges of teaching in a school of theology is engaging with students on “the big questions” and having the luxury of time to do that. I could hardly say that we up at VST generate all the answers to the big questions, but that’s not for lack of a lot of talking and wondering. Some of the questions naturally overlap the field of biblical studies—the academic and formational engagement with the Scriptures of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament and the New Testament.
One set of big questions arises around the relationship between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. These questions often start out with a comment that the student doesn’t actually like the Hebrew Bible very much because it’s so full of judgment and law, whereas they see the New Testament as full of grace and mercy. Quite a few start out assuming that the point of the grace we experience as Christians is that the law and all actions associated with keeping the law have been overcome by Jesus. This starting point is sometimes associated with the sense that since we’re saved by God’s grace and mercy, we don’t really have to do anything, believing is enough. When I have conversations with new students along these lines, I take heart in the fact that the study of the Hebrew Bible is a required part of the curriculum because a thoughtful reading of these ancient texts can help open our minds on these questions of how we are to live out our faith. In the light of the traditions of our biblical heritage, what are the relationships among law, judgment, justice, and mercy, grace and healing?
As a way in to these questions, let’s look at some of what the prophet Isaiah had to say. We’ll start by setting the stage of the time when Isaiah 58 was first preached in the years after the exile of the Jewish people.
It was a time of displacement and loss.
Everything that gave the people identity was swept away by disaster. So much of what they once counted on to reinforce their religious understanding as God’s people was gone. The religious centre they had hoped would be revitalized, was just a shell of its former self. Many didn’t come home again.
It was a time of political and economic upheaval.
More powerful nations on the international scene were demanding political and economic allegiance from smaller and weaker states. Economic systems that worked well for many years deteriorated. A very few guaranteed themselves power by going along with dominant international interests. The rest just struggled.
It was a time of confusion and uncertainty.
Some no longer found their identity rooted in the traditions of their ancestors. Others felt they were in charge of the identity markers of the community—the family lineages and worship practices. Still others tried to reinvigorate the old traditions to inspire their lives.
Not surprisingly, it was also a time of highly charged argumentation.
Everyone seemed to have a judgment on what had gone wrong. Many sincerely felt that their ideas were the only right way to fix things. The most powerful asserted that they were the only true guardians of the people’s heritage. Some expressed new ideas and hoped others would listen.
These were the dismayingly difficult political and religious conditions of the time after the exile that our passage from Isaiah addressed. The exiles who had been returned to Judah by the Persian Empire were trying to create a new life for community. Other Jews had remained in Judah as peasant farmers during the decades when the exiles were gone. Together they had to figure out how to be God’s people once again. All asked the poignant question, “How then shall we live?”
In the reading today, the prophet offers commentary on what works as an answer to that poignant question and what doesn’t work. This prophetic voice in the Isaiah tradition during the post-exilic time continually returns to the practicalities by which the people of God could in fact live as people who carry their faith with them whatever the conditions of their life.
In the highly charged rhetoric of the time, Isaiah spares no one’s sensitive feelings. He charges right in, announcing that God’s people have in fact been in rebellion and sin against God. Funny thing that, since the people apparently thought they had been sincerely seeking the Lord, delighting to know God’s ways. The contrast is drawn between what the people think they are doing and what God thinks they are doing. And unfortunately for the people who so self-righteously seek to draw near to God, what they are doing is seen by God as exactly the opposite.
The focus of both Isaiah’s judgment, and his call for an alternative, is the religious practice of fasting, which was used in ancient Israel as a rite of penitence when seeking God’s forgiveness and as a practice of prayer and supplication. In the post-exilic community, there must have been groups, perhaps associated with the powerful religious leadership around the rebuilt temple, who congratulated themselves on their superior piety in fasting and humility, and who assumed that God agreed with them. They must have begun to get some inkling that God wasn’t in fact so pleased, since Isaiah includes some quotes from the group addressed to God, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” The unspoken assumption under these questions is that if their pious actions are good enough, they will earn the Lord’s approval in the form of righteous judgments.
Well, the Lord has a different perspective on the whole matter, and Isaiah is the powerful poet who gets to deliver the news. He first undermines their understanding of their fasting. Rather than being a righteous practice, in fact their fasting leads to quarreling and fighting, oppressing their workers, and ostentatious displays of humility in sackcloth and ashes. In the context of a community deeply divided between an elite, urban religious class and a large underclass of rural peasants, such a practice could only foment further division and distrust within the community. Isaiah builds the case that such fasting is in fact forsaking the ordinance of God in the very action that the fasters think is practising righteousness. They say they seek God, but they are simply driving God further away.
Then, in one of the most quoted passages of the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah announces God’s alternative understanding of fasting. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?” Line after line in the poem lists the actions that express the true practices of righteousness as God sees them – removing the yoke of oppression and the speaking of evil, offering food to the hungry, and meeting the real needs of the afflicted. These actions could create a very different reality within a deeply divided community – such practices would build connections, help the very people that need it the most, bridge the gap between the elites and the peasants, restore the sense that God’s people are looking out for each other.
Now, it would be easy to make the leap to today’s world at this point in the sermon to talk about the desperate need for the righteousness that Isaiah outlines here—actions of justice and mercy. Lots of excellent preachers of justice have done just that over the years.
But I want to stay with the passage just a bit longer, because Isaiah has another critical point he wishes to make. In the passage, there are what we can call “consequences” for these actions of real fasting that the prophet details at great length. Yes, the poem has talked about the false piety of the fasting group, and had made clear what God’s sense real fasting entails. But fully a third of this poem is about what happens when people undertake these actions that reflect righteousness.
The poetry of the natural outcome of justice and mercy parallels the most beautiful verses of Isaiah’s words of comfort: when you loose the bonds of injustice and offer food to the hungry, your light shall break forth like the dawn, your healing shall spring up, the Lord will guide you continually, you shall be like a watered garden in a parched land, your ancient ruins will be rebuilt.
The form of these verses is important; it’s not that God rewards the people for being good—most of these are expressed as direct, unmediated outcomes of the actions themselves, not as some reward given to a good child by a stern parent. Justice and mercy themselves create blessing, bring healing, generate new life in old ruins, and light in dark places. Thinking and acting beyond our self-focused and self-congratulatory understandings of religiosity isn’t a step to earning God’s approval, some picayune attention to legalisms that gets repaid with a divine pat on the head. Rather letting the oppressed go free and satisfying the needs of the afflicted are actions that form us into those who live with God’s guidance, those who know God’s strength, those who are recognized and called “repairers of the breach, and restorers of streets to live in.”
That’s the real good news in this passage for the troubled times we live in today. Isaiah in this ancient text shows us that actions of justice and mercy reach out beyond us into healing and freedom and food and well-being for neighbours and peoples as far as we can reach. We don’t need to choose between justice and grace, between action and mercy. Simultaneously, actions of justice and mercy practiced by us are at the very same time the formation of grace and healing within us, both as individuals and as communities. We have been reminded by events this past week how desperately our world needs such grace and healing; Isaiah reminds us that is both our calling and our life in God.