When a Fast is not a Fast

I have, for some time, been slowly making my way through Isaiah in my morning devotional reading. This morning I read Isaiah 58. In the first verse, God told the prophet to cry aloud with a “voice like a trumpet” declaring the transgressions of the people. In the second verse we see an interesting twist. The ESV even has the passage beginning with “Yet.” This shows that what is to follow is not what we would expect after the first verse. The passage goes on to say that the people seek God daily, delight to know his ways and delight to draw near to him. But this seems contradictory. How can they be condemned for their transgressions (in verse 1) and in the next breath (in verse 2) be described in a way which most would assume to be righteous. Actually, the passage implies they were not acting righteously. When it says, “as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God” (ESV) the implication is that they are unrighteousness and acting in a way contrary to God’s judgment even while observing the outward elements of religion.

We discover the problem deeper in the chapter. God speaks of their fasts, but then condemns them for oppressing the workers and the poor. He goes on to tell them in verses six and seven that the fast preferred by God is to release the oppressed, to share one’s bread with the hungry and to shelter the homeless. This is an important consideration. One way sees religious practices as a simple equation between the supplicant and God. The other includes our treatment of one another as definitive of obedient observance.

Part of the way to understand this is to keep in mind the Old Covenant definition of righteousness. Righteousness meant the observance of one’s duty to others. One was righteous if one treated others in keeping with the demands of duty. But one was not righteous for observing only particular duties and ignoring others. One was righteous if it could be said they observed all duties owed to any other being. A great example is the chapter before us. If I see my duties to God as somehow separate from my duties to my fellow man, I can delude myself into thinking, “As long as I do my duty to God, it doesn’t matter how I treat others.” In an Old Covenant economy this could mean that while treating others poorly, I may offer sacrifices and fast regularly in the wrong belief that God would be satisfied with the performance of my duties to him. However, such a person was not righteous before God. Only one who did his duty to everyone was truly defined as righteous—someone who had left no duty unperformed.

Those to whom God speaks in Isaiah 58 were not righteous because they owed duties to their workers and to the poor, which they ignored while seeking God’s favor through religious observance. There are two things which help us to see why this was a problem.

First, all men[1] are made in God’s image. We all reflect his image and the way we treat other people reflects on our treatment of God. If I despise my fellow man, how can I claim to love God in whose image my fellow man was made (James 3:9-10)? Our treatment of our fellow man serves as a litmus test of our claim to love God (1 John 3:10).

Second, consider for a moment a wealthy man deciding, “Today, in honor of God, I will fast and eat nothing.” What happens to the food? It is still consumed by the same man, just on another day.[2] It is only the consumption that is delayed. However, if I take the food I would have eaten and give it to another, it is gone, never to return. It has actually cost me something. The former cost me nothing. The former cheapens the sacrifice. This form of fasting only delays the consumption, so is it truly a fast and sacrifice? God says it is not (Psalm 51:16-17; 1 John 3:17).

God condemned his people for observing the details of fasts and sacrifices without recognizing the most important element of these—concern for others. Our religious observances or faith practices are not separate from our treatment of our fellow man. They go hand in hand. You honor God by treating those created in his image with dignity.

[1] By this I mean all humanity—mankind.

[2] Yes, I understand that some foods may not be preserved and their lack of consumption could make them garbage. But this makes it even worse! Imagine the man throwing away moldy bread today, which he chose not to eat yesterday during a fast, rather than giving it to some poor person who could have consumed it while it was still good.

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Ken Cluck
Senior Pastor at Resurgent
Ken has served in various cultures and settings, including two Native American reservations, rural communities, Korean churches, and has worked with Asian refugees living in the US.

Ken's passions are Theology, Philosophy (especially Philosophy of Religion, Ethics and Logic), History and Politics.

Ken has been married to his wife, Yong, since 1987. She is the center of his world and the greatest joy of his life.