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Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12)

Isaiah’s Prophetic Call for Justice

Isaiah’s prophetic voice will not allow the people of God to seek repentance and providence absent their participation in justice.  The first few verses indicate God’s people have been crying out for deliverance, answers and divine presence.  These are the cries of those who have been displaced and felt the loss of spiritual influence in their world.  While the experiences of the exile have not been fully experienced by contemporary Christians; nonetheless, these cries are not unlike the cries echoed in the 21st century.  The desire to hear from the Lord is the defining characteristic of popular spiritual formation practices.  The desire for a ‘righteous judgment’ from the Lord is the cry of all those who have felt wronged or needed spiritual discernment.   Such desires have often been the motivation for prayer and fasting.

Isaiah warns us that our seeking after God is inhibited by the economic injustices and violence in our midst.  The presence of such oppression and violence indicates a deficiency in our spiritual practices.  He calls us to redefine the very definition of the fast.  It is not merely a period of humility marked by worshipful observances.  A fast is not just the setting apart of times for prayer, nor is a fast the inward searching after the will of God.  The purpose of the fast is not to compel the Lord that we are more serious than usual concerning a particular prayer request.  Isaiah has no patience for such a fast!  A popularly conceived fast such as this perceives of a personal faith far removed from the concerns of its neighbor that prays to a god far removed from the injustices of our world.

Isaiah will not let us sit comfortably in an inner spirituality that does not yield justice in our world.  The fasting desired by a holy nation, God’s own people, is that we loose the chains of injustice and set the oppressed free.  

We are invited to view our world with new eyes.  Who are those that are hungry and afflicted?  Who is the “poor wanderer” [NIV] in our midst?  The invitation is to see that God’s heart is for those such as these.  His heart is not turned toward those who have perfected the practices of prayer and fasting.  His heart yearns for those who have not yet been welcomed into the fold, those who have been left in the margins, because they are the have-nots.  They lack resources, food, and shelter.  They have no power with which to assure their own justice.  They have nothing to offer, yet it is to them our Lord extends grace.  They are the ones to whom our faithful practices must be directed.

Justice-making for those who exist in the margins is how our light shines, a light illuminating the grace and providence of a God who loves and cares for the least among us.  Often the metaphor of light is thought as the city on a hill or perhaps as a beacon to the nations.  Light so understood conveys the delivery of a message about God’s grace to a world still in darkness.  This could be an apt metaphor for Isaiah’s use of light; however, the context may suggest a light metaphor functioning more like a lighthouse cutting through the fog of God’s silence.  Our supplications are illuminated when we work to cut through the darkness of oppression.

Isaiah links the providence of God to the justice practiced by the people. Isaiah will not allow us to settle into a reserved individualistic faith that rests in the comfort of one’s own salvation. No, such prayer and fasting is too far removed from the afflicted! Isaiah reveals to us that the oppressed are precisely where we will find the presence of God. Any desires for personal or national restoration must be sought through seeking justice and care to the afflicted in our midst.