February 8, 2020 • Life for Leaders
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?
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.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If I had to choose one of the prophetic books to take with me to a desert island, it would probably be Isaiah. I love the prophets as a whole, but I find Isaiah simultaneously the most comforting and the most challenging. In my church tradition, we read through Isaiah at this time every three years as we celebrate what Jesus’s coming meant to the Gentiles during the season of Epiphany.
At the beginning of this passage, the coming of God into the situation Isaiah addresses definitely means challenge, not comfort. Earlier verses in Isaiah 58 warn the people of Israel that simply “going through the motions” of worship and devotion will not be enough. Those in leadership fast, God says, and expect him to hear them—but all the while they are oppressing and exploiting those who work for them, and even breaking out in fistfights with each other (Isaiah 58:3-4)! They wear sackcloth and ashes as the Scriptures have instructed them, so that they will appear humble, but they do not have true humility; they do not have sackcloth and ashes in their hearts.
No, the prophet says: true fasting begins with justice for the oppressed, with breaking every yoke. Since the people have been called out earlier in the passage for oppressing their own workers, we assume he probably wants them to start there, with the unjust yokes they themselves have laid on others. But he goes further. Take the homeless poor into your own houses; share your bread with them; share your clothes; remember that we are all kin—children of the same Father.
Take the homeless poor into your own houses. This is challenging to me. After all, I lock my doors at night. I lock my car. I give to charities, and sometimes even to those on the street who ask, but—in my own house, Lord?
Then I think of this story. Several years ago, my in-laws’ church decided that they wanted to start a soup kitchen. They also wanted to have a fellowship meal for church members and friends. But they didn’t have enough staff and volunteers to do both. So they combined them into a single Wednesday night meal, to which they invited not only church members but everyone in the downtown community surrounding the church. Some people pay for dinner. Some don’t. Everybody goes through the same line and sits at the same tables. We’ve learned each other’s names. People from the community have begun attending the Wednesday evening Bible studies that follow the meal. Some have begun attending church as well. There have been several people who’ve left a life of addiction and several who’ve been baptized.
I don’t know about you, but to me that’s beginning to look a little bit like light breaking forth like the dawn and healing springing up quickly.
Something to Think About:
How do you react to the notion of bringing the homeless poor into your house and church? What concerns do you have?
In what ways are you going through the motions in your life of faith?
Where do you see opportunities to perform the kind of fasting God desires in this passage?
Something to Do:
Ask God to show you a step you can take to begin the kind of fasting he desires.
Lord, help us to not go through the motions. Help us to see how our own actions may hurt others, and help us discern how to break the yokes we see around us. If we are leaders, guide us that we may not oppress those we lead, but that we may enable their light to break forth like the dawn. Amen.
Explore more at The High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project:
The Fasting God Desires
Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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