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 will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
I admit it’s a bit ironic to talk about fasting the day before Thanksgiving Day in the United States. But our slow devotional walk through Isaiah brings us to chapter 58, a chapter that has much to say about fasting… and much to say that is as surprising to us as it is challenging.
In the time of Isaiah, the Israelites were doing all sorts of religious activities, such as offering sacrifices in the temple or observing the required fasts. But God was not pleased with their religiosity because they were neglecting justice and mercy. They were exploiting their workers (58:3) and quarreling (58:4). What God wanted from his people was not mere religious observance, but rather deep repentance (58:5).
Moreover, God desired that his people sought justice for those who were oppressed and poor: “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?” (58:6-7).
If the people of God would seek justice and care for the needy, God promised that they would be greatly blessed: “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard” (58:8).
God continues to be honored by our deeds of compassion and justice. As James writes in his New Testament letter, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (1:27). We don’t do such deeds in order to earn God’s salvation, but rather as a response to his grace. When we care for the poor in God’s name, he receives our actions as worship that honors him.
This is made most clear in Matthew 25, where Jesus identifies so closely with those who are in need that he receives care for them as if offered to him: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (25:34-36, 40). What greater motivation could we have for caring for those in need?
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
In what ways are you honoring God by caring for the poor or seeking justice for the oppressed?
What might you do in your life to respond to Isaiah 58?
Gracious God, help us to engage in the kind of “fasting” that you desire. May your people be on the front lines of caring for the poor and seeking justice for the oppressed. Forgive us, Lord, when we get so wrapped up in our “religious stuff” that we fail to do seek justice and love mercy.
Show me, dear Lord, how I can be regularly involved in caring for the poor and seeking justice for those who need it. May this sort of “worship” become a regular part of my life, for your sake and glory. Amen.