The Worship God Wants Is Justice
Isaiah 58:1-12, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, February 9. 2014
We are still in the season of Epiphany, celebrating the light of God’s revelation of himself coming into the world. The gospel text assigned for today is Jesus saying “You are the light of the world. Let your light shine through your good deeds so that people may see them and praise God for what you are doing.” The Old Testament text is the one we read from Isaiah 58, which has wonderful promises about the coming of light. “Your light shall break forth like the dawn…the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard,” and again, “your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom will be like midday.”
Sounds great, like the upbeat sermon I gave a couple of weeks ago on “the Lord is my light and my salvation.” But here in Isaiah there is a big IF. All those promises come after some big IFs:
- if you share your bread with the hungry
- if you bring the homeless poor into your house
- if when you see those without clothes you clothe them
- if you do not hide from needy family members
- if you satisfy the needs of the afflicted.
If you do those things, then, God says, “Light will break out, healing will spring up, and I will be your vindicator.” If you do those things, then “your light will rise in the darkness and what is gloomy now we be as bright as midday.” This is a word of promise, but it comes after a word of judgment, because those who come to worship are eagerly seeking God’s blessing but they have not acted to make themselves a blessing to those in need and those who are victims of injustice.
It is a constant theme of the prophets—and Jesus, and James, and John—that God sees through our religious talk and sees what is in our heart. And he sees what is in our heart not by some magic but by what we do. As First John puts it, if we say we love God but we walk right past someone we could help with our material goods but do nothing, then we don’t know anything about God’s love. If we say we love God and don’t care about people, we are lying. Or as James says, If you say you have faith but don’t have actions to go with it, then you don’t have faith. Period. You can’t really believe that Jesus reveals God—that Jesus is right about everything—and still be focused on your own wealth. Impossible.
Isaiah is dealing with the same kind of thing centuries before. People want to worship God and seek his face. They sincerely want that personal relationship and they pray that God will restore their nation. But those prayers have not changed their behavior. Shane Claiborne, leader of an intentional community among the poor in Philadelphia, wrote a book a few years ago with the title, Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers. When we pray with our communities in mind, we can become the answer to the prayer “Give us this day our daily bread.” We can practice literally forgiving the debts of others. In Isaiah’s time, the religious people were praying for God to bless them and restore their conquered nation, but they were not living in a way to make that happen. Isaiah reminds them that God’s plan for the covenant community includes sharing with the poor. It prohibits taking property away from debtors and turning them into slaves. It includes taking care of your employees, whether free or slave, whether your own kind or foreigners. In Isaiah 58 the prophet is the voice of God reminding the people that they cannot pray on the basis of the covenant while living contrary to it. They cannot pray for the kingdom to be restored while refusing to do their part to make the kingdom come—by working for justice and giving to the poor.
Many scholars have concluded that the book of Isaiah collects the saying from three prophets who were all part of the same school or community of prophets. The original Isaiah lived in Jerusalem in the 8th century B.C. when the king was still on the throne in the southern kingdom of Judah and Solomon’s temple was still in operation. The second Isaiah begins to speak in chapter 40, with the “Comfort ye my people” passage. He’s speaking in the period at the end of the exile in Babylon, after the temple was destroyed and the cream of Jerusalem society was taken as prisoners of war for two generations. Then in chapter 55 we hear a voice speaking in a later situation in which people have been struggling to rebuild the society of Jerusalem.
If that thesis is true, then it’s especially striking that in Isaiah 58, the third Isaiah returns to the themes of the very first chapter of the book, written many generations earlier. The theme that kicks off the book—that in some ways lies at the heart of the whole prophetic movement—is that God hates religion without justice. In Isaiah 1, it’s not a knock on fasting but a knock on the whole system of public worship and offerings. Listen to what Yahweh the Lord says there (1:11-17 CEB):
What should I think about all your sacrifices? says the Lord.
I’m fed up with entirely burned offerings of rams
and the fat of well-fed beasts.
I don’t want the blood of bulls, lambs, and goats.
When you come to appear before me,
who asked this from you,
this trampling of my temple’s courts?
Stop bringing worthless offerings.
Your incense repulses me.
New moon, sabbath, and the calling of an assembly—
I can’t stand wickedness with celebration!
I hate your new moons and your festivals.
They’ve become a burden that I’m tired of bearing.
When you extend your hands,
I’ll hide my eyes from you.
Even when you pray for a long time,
I won’t listen.
Your hands are stained with blood.
Wash! Be clean!
Remove your ugly deeds from my sight.
Put an end to such evil;
learn to do good.
help the oppressed;
defend the orphan;
plead for the widow.
Do you think God is talking through the prophet to a Mafia convention? This isn’t a gathering of criminals with blood on their hands; it is the gathering of well-intended religious people who have been convinced by the Temple system that what God really wants from them is worship, sacrifice, and songs.
The truth, Isaiah and other prophets keep saying, is that what God is really looking for from his people is justice and mercy. Yes, God is pleased by our delighting in him in worship. God has graciously provided sacrifice as the means by which we can be assured of his forgiveness. But if you major in these things and neglect the weightier matters of my teaching—justice and mercy—then it’s all for nothing.
Christianity has gone down the same path as Judaism. We have made Christianity all about (1) a personal relationship with Jesus—meaning a relationship that assures us on an individual level that God loves us—and (2) gathering with other Christians for worship. Those are important things, but we act as if they are the only things. Take care of those things and don’t worry about the economy. Don’t taint the church with politics. Justice is a matter for the courts, not the church. To all of this God says in Isaiah 1 and in Isaiah 58, I hate your worship services, I hate your fasts which show how spiritual you are. I’m not looking for that kind of spirituality. I’m looking for people who show they love me by obeying me. I’m looking for people who show they love me by loving people who have no one else.
God says: You who are gathered for worship are complicit in an economy and a system in which the rich and the poor live in separate worlds, and it’s because you don’t care that people are dying. That is why I say to you worshippers “Your hands are stained with blood.” People starve because you do not give and because you do not push your government to give foreign aid. People are dying because you refuse to expand Medicaid in Bible Belt states to help the needy because your hatred of the President exceeds your love for the poor. (These aren’t Christians letting it happen; these are Christians doing this to the poor.) God says: Here’s what I want rather than one more verse of Amazing Grace: I want you to seek justice. Not justice for yourselves, as if you are victims. I mean justice for the real victims: the poor, the orphans, the widows with no means of financial support. Take care of them, and then we’ll talk about coming into my house to be close to me.
In Isaiah 58, it’s the fake repentance of public fasts that get Yahweh’s goat. I’ve been to these meetings in my own time called “solemn assemblies” in which we fasted and prayed for God to bring revival to America. Some people were praying that God would restore America to the 1950’s, to the days before the Supreme Court ruined our schools. Some people were praying that we would elect a godly president—because, of course, the current one is ungodly. There was personal repentance of failure to maintain quiet times with God, spending time on porn sites instead, drinking too much, that sort of thing. In those meetings among evangelicals I never heard anyone say what Isaiah, Amos, and Micah would have said: God will not bless us until we establish justice in America. God will not bless the church until it blesses the poor. What we need to repent of is income inequality within God’s people, of treating the poor as if it is their own fault that they are poor, of having one standard of criminal justice for the poor and another for the rich. These are the very same issues that the Isaiahs addressed in the 8th century and the 6th.
The sins Isaiah identifies first as needing repentance are treating workers unfairly and fighting one another. It’s not clear to me if the striking with a wicked fist is striking the workers or striking someone else. But it’s economic unfairness and violence that make God say that he will not hear their prayers. What he really wants—“the fast I choose”—is to loose the bonds of injustice and untie the ropes of the yoke. The yoke, that wooden piece that goes across the neck of an ox, was long a symbol of enforced servitude. It was used in the Old Testament for the situation of household slaves, slavery in Egypt, the Babylonian exile, and debt slavery. The predominant kind of slavery addressed in the Old Testament is debt slavery.
In the time of Isaiah 58, immigrants were coming back to the Jerusalem area after living in Babylon for two generations. There were people who had been left behind, who had taken possession of the land and the means of production. When the immigrants came back—and ironically, they were people who were once the elite—the locals took advantage of them. They charged them interest, something forbidden in the law. They took as collateral any land they had, their clothes, and even their wives and children. When the newly poor could not pay their debts, their wives and children were taken as slaves by the creditors. You can read all about this in Nehemiah chapter 5. Nehemiah was furious and called an assembly to deal with this and put his foot down that these practices must stop. The net effect was that God had acted to bring enslaved people home from Babylon only to have them enslaved by their own people. That’s the evil that Isaiah’s pronouncement is condemning.
Now, Yahweh says, if instead of taking advantage of the lower classes by making money off of them you would give food to them (no conditions!), bring the homeless into your own house (no conditions!), give clothes to those so poor they are running around naked (no conditions!)—if you will do that, then you will be the light of the world. I will be with you and I will be your light. I will be your vindicator and not the one who condemns you. If you will stop oppressing and start helping, when you call to me, I will answer. When you cry to me for help, I will say, “Here I am.” I will be water in your thirsty land. You will rebuild your society and all that has been ruined will be restored.
I’ve never been to a workshop on prayer or spirituality that even mentioned seeking justice as a way to improve your prayer life. That’s how we have treated prayer and policy as if they are two separate realms of life. We have completely forgotten that we are praying to a justice-seeking God, a God who acts to remove the yoke of debt slavery, a God who judges us by how we treat the weakest in society.
Jim Wallis, our friend and founder of Sojourners, attended an evangelical seminary in Chicago. One day, he and some of his classmates decided to do a little experiment. They went through all sixty-six books of the Bible and underlined every passage and verse that dealt with poverty, wealth, justice and oppression. Then one of Jim’s classmates did something I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing. He took a pair of scissors and physically cut out every one of those verses out of the Bible. The result was a volume in tatters that barely held together. There are almost two thousand verses in Scripture that deal with poverty and justice. When Jim was young, he would hold his ragged book in the air and proclaim, “Brothers and sisters, this is our American Bible; it is full of holes. Each one of us might as well take a Bible, a pair of scissors, and begin cutting out all the scriptures we pay no attention to, all the biblical texts that we just ignore.”
You’ve heard it from Jim and from Isaiah more than once that we can’t expect to come here and worship God while ignoring what matters to God most. And yet we somehow manage to return to that comfortable state of thinking that we come to church to meet our spiritual needs rather than the needs of our community, that we ought not to meddle by calling anyone’s behavior an injustice, that we don’t need to let Jesus affect our politics, that we can just enjoy our potluck without thinking of those who have nothing to eat. God says we are just fooling ourselves. We are not fooling him. He won’t tolerate our nonsense. Someday we will wake up to what God wants and a light will go on. Then we will see his light, and we will become light for the world. May someday come soon.
- Harbor ChurchBox D2Phone: 401-466-5940
Block Island, RI 02807