Tag Archives: oppressed

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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The Lord’s Servant

This morning, my devotional reading was in Isaiah 42. I was struck with the following (vv1-4 ESV):

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,

my chosen, in whom my soul delights;

I have put my Spirit upon him;

he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,

or make it heard in the street;

a bruised reed he will not break,

and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;

he will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow faint or be discouraged

till he has established justice in the earth;

and the coastlands wait for his law.

 

It is important that we understand this passage is a description of Christ. However, keep in mind it also points to another. Hebrews 10:1 tells us that the law was a shadow of the good things to come. The law established Israel as a servant of God. Israel was a shadow of the true good servant to come. Israel, in this capacity, serves as a shadow of Christ. So this passage refers to Christ as the good servant who would peacefully and faithfully seek justice, but it also refers to his Old Testament image—Israel. Now, after the coming of Christ and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit the church fills this role as the image of Christ upon the earth. We must keep this in mind. The servant mentioned in Isaiah 42:1-4 was, in their role as the Old Testament shadow of Christ, Israel; was Christ who came in the flesh; and, is applicable to the Church who displays Christ today. If Christ is seeking Justice in the world—as Isaiah says he will do—then he does it through his church.

Notice something about this passage. It says the servant would not cry aloud or lift up his voice, would not break even a bruised reed, nor extinguish a faintly burning wick. This is an image of someone working, but doing so peacefully. It is not the image of an activist screaming in a bullhorn. It is not the image of a rebel taking up arms to throw off a tyrant. It is the image of one who quietly and peacefully sets his shoulder to the work of establishing justice around him.

This image is to be a description of our own work in the world. We are to be about the business of establishing justice and these efforts should be marked by two qualities: peacefulness and faithfulness. We are to seek justice in a way that encourages the peaceful transformation of society from unjust to just and we are to do so no matter how long it takes and regardless of how many oppose our efforts.

The faithfulness is easy to understand and difficult to misapply. This means doing it without stopping and without discouragement. Actually, the passage goes on to say that the servant will not grow faint or be discouraged until his work of establishing justice is complete. This helps us to understand exactly what is meant.

The problem comes when trying to understand the peacefulness quality. Does this mean we must always be quiet and malleable? Does this require having a milquetoast quality? Well, if we follow Christ’s example we have to conclude that this is not what is intended. Christ opposed strongly. He stood for the weak and he spoke for the voiceless. He insulted the spiritual leaders of his day (What else is meant by calling them “whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones” or a “brood of vipers”?) He flipped over tables, and drove away the merchants with a hand fashioned whip. He stood before a king and contemptuously refused to answer any questions.

So, what does this mean? How do we fulfill this quality? Actually, the passage itself makes it clear.

First, how we speak:

It says he would not lift up his voice or make it heard in the street. This doesn’t mean we never shout or be loud in support of justice. But it does mean we do not draw attention to ourselves. When we shout it is not to put ourselves forward, but to put forward the cause and the need for justice and to draw attention to the victims. If we raise our voices, it is so the world is informed of the injustice. We speak to publicize the need, rather than our efforts.

Second, how we act:

Notice that the unbroken reed was already bruised. For those who do not understand this means that it is previously damaged and weakened. Notice that the unquenched wick is already burning faintly—nearly extinguished on its own. In other words, he will not do more harm to what has already been damaged. The servant of God does not destroy what is already broken, nor does he tear down what is already falling. The servant of God seeks to build up, to encourage, to mend.

Unfortunately, we often do exactly the opposite. When we see Christians screaming in people’s faces or practicing scorched-earth politics the world sees a twisted image of Christ. Believers responding to sin with judgment rather than forgiveness mistake Pharisaism for Christianity. When we are more interested in being loved by the powerful than lifting up the weak we are not acting as Christ.

Christ had an Old Testament image which was embodied in Israel. Christ was the physical manifestation foreshadowed by Israel.

Peacefully seek justice—justice for our fellow believers, justice for our neighbors and even justice for those who oppose us.

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