A Faith That Rings Hollow

Isaiah 58:1-12

Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
    Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
    and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
For day after day they seek me out;
    they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
    and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
    and seem eager for God to come near them.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
    ‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
    and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
    and exploit all your workers.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
    and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
    and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
    only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
    and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
    a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
    and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
    and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness[a] will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

Often in my childhood growing up in a Pentecostal and Charismatic setting I heard teachings that connected faith with prosperity.  Somehow, if I had the right amount of faith and I never really knew how much was really enough, well then I could obtain health or wealth.  Having enough faith also included having one’s relatives saved.  And I see where these ideas come from in the scripture as the Bible often uses the words faith in connection with healing and the supplying of our needs.  But something always seemed a bit off for me. 

I remember as a small child the elders in my church telling my mother that if she had enough faith, well then her husband would return to the family and all would be well.  And then as children we were told that children have a much purer faith than adults so perhaps they should do the praying especially for hard stuff like praying one’s father back to God and to the home. My mother had incredible faith.  She remained true to God in spite of living through a challenging affair, a divorce and raising and supporting 4 children on her own.  We faithfully went to church connecting our broken little family to the larger family of God.  She had great faith—or perhaps it could be better called tenacity or even loyalty.  Even though life did not turn out the way she had planned the Lord was present with her.  Every little blessing was received with gratitude.  When garage sales yielded just the right item—shoes or clothes for school, that side table–my mother would always say, “that was the Lord’s provision.”  And we would happily continue on our way.  Her faith was strong and practical and the Lord did provide for our needs. 

Even though my family was somewhat poor, and my mother worked hard as a LPN, she was usually the first one to serve the poor.  Maybe because she had been there or maybe because the Spirit within inspired her to serve others.  Whatever the case, she was the one holding baby showers for teen moms and bringing food over to those who needed it.  While she did not march with King, or protest, she was tuned in to the cries of the poor and the broken and the wounded. 

Justice was being there for folks when they needed someone.

As I learned more about the Bible and began to interpret more holistically, Isaiah 58 became more alive connecting justice with the flourishing life.  Instead of faith being linked with prosperity, I believe that the Bible links justice with flourishing.  And that when the Bible speaks about the righteous prospering, it’s not about faith (as certitude) but about faith (as union with God) and living righteously toward others.  Often being righteous is similar to being a person of justice in the Bible.  

In Isaiah 58 the prophet is calling God’s people back to the Torah life which is the kind of living that produces the flourishing life.  It’s not a formula in which if we give to the poor, then we will reap benefits of some sort.  The flourishing life comes from an other-centeredness that results in flourishing for everyone.  Those who seek justice flourish right along with those who receive justice.  This is exactly the opposite of the world’s view that in order to survive, we need to grab life for ourselves and point fingers at the ones in poverty–because if they only worked harder, they too would flourish.  

There are a number of points Isaiah makes to God’s people about fasting that can help us grasp the link between justice and flourishing.

1. If we do all the worship and religious activities, but exploit our workers, and use violence our fasting is hollow.

Our worship activities that we feel are so important ring hollow to both God and others when we fail to live with justice and compassion for other human beings be they employees or neighbors.  Even the Apostle Paul says that if we do all of the religious activities–sacrifice our bodies, etc and not have love, we are like a clanging gong–irritable to those who hear it.  I wonder how often our preaching, speaking, singing and writing feels like a clanging gong to those who long to see genuine justice among us.  

2.  Will our voices be heard in prayer when we continue to exploit others and use violence?

I wonder often if we don’t have the same kinds of healing today that we read about in the Bible, because of the ways people are exploited by those who say they follow Jesus.  I have observed that there are more healings taking place among the poor and disadvantaged than in our own nation.  Could it be that without resources, God is compassionate toward the vulnerable and hears their cries for healing?  We often say it is because of rationalism and that’s a fair charge but could it have something to do with our nationalism?

3.  The kind of fasting God has chosen is: to do away with the chains of injustice, to untie the chords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke. 

Growing up in the individualistic paradigm, I thought it had to do with spiritual oppression but in this text, it is much more practical and literal than I had previously thought.  Isaiah is not suggesting that we go and lay hands on possessed people so they might be delivered from demons.  He is suggesting according to the context, that the kind of fasting God has chosen is to liberate others from oppression and injustice.  It includes demonic but sometimes I think we miss the demonic forces that create injustice because we are so focused on delivering individual people from demons.  We are a world possessed by evil when human beings are exploited in the name of profit or we make war in the name of peace.  We are in some sense possessed by the dark forces of this world when we buy in to it’s ways and give in to it’s hungers.

4.  The kind of fasting God has chosen involves feeding the hungry, providing clothing for the naked and offering shelter to the wanderer—and to not abandon one’s own children. 

Again, these kinds of offerings to the Lord are very practical and seem quite unspiritual.  Could the wanderers be the homeless or the immigrants or the refugees?  It’s curious that fasting is connected to providing food for others.  Could it be that we might choose to give up some of our own wealth so that others might have opportunity to eat.  

5.  Then, when God’s people have done the fasting of righteousness… the healing will come.

What does Isaiah mean by healing?  I think it has to do with both physical healing and the healing of relationships—reconciliation.  Healing has to do with that which is broken in the world—that which makes for oppression and exploitation will be healed.  And we will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.  Which of course in a desert is a big deal.

This writing by Isaiah is a picture of what God desires for his people and how he desires for them to live.  He knows that when people are liberated and fed and cared for, then everyone will flourish.  Isaiah is drawing an enormous picture for us reminding us that the flourishing life is not about wealth and power and status in the eyes of the world.  The flourishing life is what happens when God’s people come out of darkness into the light of God and see how the ways of the world are creating more and more brokenness among us. 

The prophet is calling us to turn from those ways and engage in true fasting, true worship, true religion and join God in doing the work of the kingdom.  Then all will flourish and the land will be healed. 

Time and time again, God’s people fall into the same old habits and consider their practices of worship in the church building, their daily devotions to be what God desires… and I’m not knocking those practices.  But they ring hollow exposing us to how we are yet influenced by the world.  We can worship in the sanctuary with hands lifted high emotionally connecting with God and be fully unaware of all the exploitation and the ways in which we are complicit.

I feel that I am living in a time when we are more concerned about whether or not we can say “Merry Christmas” or  whether we maintain cultural dominance than we are concerned about Black bodies, hunger, children separated from their families, refugees, immigrants, the unborn and trafficked human beings.  We use the pointing finger and the malicious talk to avoid responsibility for our own sin and then bask in our Sunday morning worship services with hands lifted high.  It feels hollow, especially to those who are on the receiving end of our exploitation and to those who are looking for something more genuine. 

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
    he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
    and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
    Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

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One thought on “A Faith That Rings Hollow”

  1. Thank you, Faith, for these deep thoughts. I’m thinking about these themes a lot in these days. On theone hand I believe more and more, that we (me, ma church, many other christians) are not living in the blessings, that we could have as children of the king. That we could have more childlike faith and living more flourishing, live to see more healings, miracles and abundance, because our Father is willing to all these things to us. On the other hand I am a litte wary, if someone is preaching (and living) that we all could become rich, healed and so on, if we believed in the right way. You formulated it so well, what I am thinking about. There must be great faith among persecuted and poor christians, I think. But they are living in bad circumstances. So what about them? What about Paul writing, that he is satisfied with both: wealth and poverty. Abundance and hunger. There is so much more to find even in the NT, that proves, that the Prosperity Gospel is wrong. But inspite of that, I believe, there is more than we have now. Your article is an answer. The connection of justice and flourishing: yes. Fasting could be giving: Thank you for this thought!

    Like

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