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Isaiah 58:1-12

Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent, a time when we pause to reflect on our discipleship and prepare ourselves for the great feast of Easter when we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. Today’s Old Testament reading has been chosen for its focus on fasting and repentance, two of the traditional themes of Lent. It appears also as the reading for Epiphany 5 in Year A partly because of the reference to light breaking forth (Isa 58:8, 10) and of the Lord’s revelation to the people (v. 9). This passage is a classic one on the matter of fasting (vv. 3-7) and is an alternative reading to the Joel 2 reading for Ash Wednesday each year.

While the reading for Ash Wednesday extends to v. 12 it must be seen in a larger context to understand its full significance. The pattern of the chapter continues right through to v. 14 and vv. 13-14 should also be read, at least for background to today’s reading.

The chapter begins in vv. 1-2 with God’s voice addressing the prophet telling him to announce to the people their rebellion and sin. This sin is not shaped by a conscious rejection of God. Rather it has a particularly pious character. The people do seek God and God’s ways. They delight to be near God and seek divine judgments. They act, says God (v. 2b), as if they were a righteous people. From the beginning of the chapter we know that this pious behaviour cloaks the rebellion of the people announced in v. 1. As the chapter unfolds we hear how it takes effect in two ways: in relation to fasting (vv. 3-12) and in relation to observance of the Sabbath (vv. 13-14).

Each section is marked by a number of conditions put before the people and then a set of results which will flow if the conditions are met. In the section on fasting the conditions are first put forward in the form of a series of rhetorical questions (vv. 5-7). Later the questions turn to straight conditions (‘If…’, vv. 9b-10a). These are then continued in the section on the Sabbath without any further introduction (v. 13). The results, if the conditions are met, are set out clearly (‘Then…’) in vv. 8-9a, 10b-12, and 14.

At the start we know that even the people sense something is wrong. God, through the prophet, quotes their words: ‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ (v. 3a) This makes the people’s activities all the more pathetic. They do seek God’s presence and response to their needs, and they know something is wrong because God seems not to be concerned for them, yet they do not see themselves in any sense as the root of the problem. It is God who, in their view, is out of place ignoring them (vv. 3b-4). Their fasting somehow serves their own interests and affects others adversely (v. 3b). Moreover, it is accompanied by dissention (v. 4a). The passage is not totally clear about the full nature of the people’s rebellion. Their quarrelling and fighting (v. 4a) could be over the nature and details of the fasting itself or totally unrelated to it indicating a separation between the people’s piety and their community life. The oppression of their workers (v. 3b) could be quite deliberate in order to allow the pious to fast or again it might be the result of a short-sighted view of the separation of religion and life’s activities. In either case, God has no truck with such piety and efforts to seek divine attention.

It is at this point that the questions/conditions begin. Verse 5 asks whether the fast God requires consists of being bowed down and covered with sackcloth and ashes. This is a strange statement at the start because it is precisely what one might expect a fast to involve – shaped by contrition and humility and covered in materials that symbolise that state. Fasting is not specifically mentioned a lot in the Old Testament although there are many references to abstaining from food for various reasons. The only liturgically prescribed fast in the Old Testament is on the Day of Atonement (see Lev 16:29, 31; Num 29:7). Fasting was, however, widely practised in relation to mourning (Neh 1:4), confession of sin (Ezra 9:5; Neh 9:1), intercessory prayer (Ps 35:13) or petitionary prayer (Ps 109:24; Dan 9:3). It was also associated with the tearing of clothing and donning sackcloth and covering oneself with earth or ash. With that background one wonders why God asks rhetorically in Isa 58:5 whether that is the sort of fast that is desired.

The questions that follow in vv. 6-7 redefine fasting in the people’s eyes. Fasting is universally associated with self-deprivation, with withdrawal or abstention from food mostly. But these verses put a much more active and positive spin on the nature of fasting. The implication is that loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, and breaking every burdensome yoke are a significant part of fasting (v. 6). Fasting is also sharing bread with the hungry, housing the homeless, covering the naked, and being available to others (v. 7). There is no doubt that some of these tasks will require of the doer a personal cost, in effort, time, money, maybe even in reputation. It will mean sharing what is possessed with those who have no possessions. There is self-deprivation there. But the passage also portrays fasting as a positive, active enterprise, not just a negative, passive one. Fasting is an activity that is embraced actively and associated with the needs of others. Verses 9b-12 also add the removal of conflict and accusation from among the people to the list of ‘fasting’ activities.

With all this then light will shine and healing will be experienced (v. 8a). God will answer their calls and watch over them (vv. 8b-9). God will guide and satisfy their needs (v.11) and the ruins of the city of Jerusalem will be rebuilt. The passage comes in a section of Isaiah which speaks to those who have just returned from exile in Babylon to the ruins of Jerusalem.

In this season of Lent we are invited in Isaiah 58 to begin our reflections by considering the interplay between piety and personal spiritual discipline and what we would call social justice and responsibility. The two cannot be separated. If they are then both become meaningless and not part of the worship of God.

Psalm 51

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