The other day I came across a picture of a property-front window in Minneapolis boarded up with “Do Not Burn Immigration Lawyers” spray painted on the front. As the city burned, the community had sought to protect a place it knew had its best interest at heart. To them, this was sacred ground, a place worth protecting.
My pastor often encourages us to think about our church’s role within the community as working toward being such a presence there that were we to close our doors our absence would be felt. As I’ve pondered the “Do Not Burn” image, I’ve wondered if my city were on fire, would my church get the “Do Not Burn” treatment from the vulnerable? Would we be spared as the city burned? Would my house be? Are these known places of refuge and relief? I hope I never have to find out, but if I’m honest, my prediction unsettles me.
If that sounds like an impossible and unbiblical standard, care for the vulnerable and oppressed is commanded throughout both Old and New Testaments. In Isaiah 58, the people of God approach him after a day of fasting, asking if he’d seen and noticed their act of contrition. These well-meaning pious Israelites don’t seem that different from today’s well-meaning Christians: they seek God daily, they seem eager to know his ways, and they want him to draw near to them (Isa 58:2).
But rather than commend their efforts, God paints a vastly different picture of fasting for them—one that begins (but does not end) with loosening the bond of wickedness, undoing and breaking every yoke, and letting the crushed go free. The Hebrew word for ‘to loose’ frequently appears with other words denoting slavery or bondage (Psa 102:20, 116:16, Isa 51:14, Jer 40:4) and yoke, which repeats twice, symbolizes oppression. One small but crucial word further magnifies the scale of this work: “every.” We don’t get to pick over forms of oppression like items from the clearance rack, taking whatever suits us—God abhors them all. From God’s perspective, fasting with no heart for the oppressed or action taken on their behalf is a mere empty gesture.
Israel was stranger neither to captivity nor to emancipation, which God often reminded them of (Deut 5:15, 15:15, 16:12, 24:18, 22). This personal history ought to have in turn made them examples of God’s own merciful character among the nations. But, as the prophets tell it, more often than not, it didn’t. As the redeemed, we would do well to ask ourselves the same question theologian John Oswalt suggests God is after in his response to those fasting, “Are they living as free persons, spreading that freedom wherever they go in all their relations? Or are they using it as a vehicle to exalt themselves?” God corrects their understanding of what pleases him to require the seeking of freedom and relief for the oppressed. This tops God’s list of concerns and we demonstrate our devotion to him through our devotion to them. True piety cannot help but express itself in these ways.
In addition to freeing the oppressed, God certifies as authentic the kind of fasting where resources are shared—food with the hungry, shelter with the homeless, clothes with the naked—so that no one is without (Isa 58:7). Jesus doubles down on the importance of this in Matthew 25:42-43 when he rebukes the righteous—again, not the blatantly wicked, but the righteous—at the final judgment, “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Jesus sends these away “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” This is a far more extreme statement than what we find in Isaiah. Not only does God overlook a single fast but a whole lifetime of religious activity. He sends them away. These are words worth honestly wrestling with while keeping in mind that the goal is not shame, but godly sorrow that leads to repentance. Our treatment of the oppressed does not replace our faith, it demonstrates it.
No doubt, the righteous who were turned away were stunned. But temple, sacrifices, sabbaths, phylacteries, tithing, worship team, Bible trivia, small group leading… The list of actions they’d considered most befitting Yahweh worship and their active participation in them must have raced through their thoughts as they tried to process this seeming plot twist. Like them, we may fool ourselves into believing our worship is genuine but we cannot deceive God. It is as though those fasting came before God saying, “Look how sincere our worship is!” And God answered, “What worship?” As they say, “Look how devoted we were to you!” he looks down on the condition of the poor, needy, and oppressed they had opportunity to help but didn’t then looks back at them and says, “I do not see it.”
God does not want us to be fooled so he has made his way clear in his Word, the righteous of Matthew 25 had the words of Isaiah 58; we have the words of both plus God’s precious indwelling Spirit that enable us to do “even greater works than these” (John 14:12). We neglect the vulnerable to our own peril. This is not rhetoric but reality. Joseph Benson, a Methodist minister, called acts of mercy the fruit of true repentance. We are not saved by these acts of mercy, rather they prove we are indeed new creations and that the heavenly gift of faith has penetrated the inner sanctum of our hearts.
It is not just a matter of God’s preference that we show mercy and love justice but one of familial resemblance. Spiritually speaking, the fruit would have fallen too far from the tree to have a divine Father who was sent to proclaim and achieve liberty for captives, and the opening of the prison for those who are bound—ourselves included—to have children with no taste for mercy even while they are contented recipients of it. Mercy is not a recessive trait in the children of God.
To fast in this way is a matter of righteous living. Isaiah is saying in essence there is no piety without it. It is not an elective for blood-bought disciples. Therefore, our sanctification is stunted without the regular practice of liberating those in bondage and showing generosity, hospitality and mercy toward the poor. We should question what kind of tree we are if it does not produce this fruit.
Isaiah returns again to oppression in verse 9, “if they remove oppression from their midst, stop shaming others and speaking ill of them, and if they pour out their soul for the hungry and nurse the afflicted soul,” they will receive blessings from the Lord. Not only will they finally be seen and attended to by him when they fast in this manner, but their light “will break forth like the dawn” (Isa 58:8).
Verse 9b returns to the yoke for a third time in this section, “if you take away the yoke from your midst,” emphasizing again the importance of undoing oppression. Westermann states,“In the context of acts of help, releasing from any sort of bondage is given pride of place.” This verse also mentions finger pointing and speaking evil of one another as ills to remove from their midst. They are to treat others with dignity and not shame or slander them.
God seems to anticipate that even acts of mercy could become the new fast—a form of empty ritualism. He wants them to love mercy and not just perform it as duty. Verse 10 raises the bar: “if you draw out your soul for the hungry and satisfy the afflicted soul,” (translation mine). It gets at the essence of what pleases God: a heart-spent love for neighbor that considers both their physical and emotional needs and seeks to meet them both. Attention shifts from material needs to intangible ones to reveal a deeper level of commitment required from the person fasting. In verse 7, they are to share their bread, but in verse 10, they are to pour out their souls. In verse 7 they tend to their bodies, in 10, they tend to their deep sadness.
God wants both the material resources and hearts of the fasters engaged with the bodies and distresses of the needy. Westernman states, “What mars the fast is the fact that, with those who observe them, their whole being is not involved in their supplication.” Likewise, the effects of this deeper engagement leads to an even brighter light rising in the darkness and even when their light is dim it will be as bright as the noonday (Isa 58:10). They will be an undeniable and unmistakable witness among the darkness.
There is a beautiful reciprocity found in verse 11. “And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your soul in the scorched land and strengthen your bones,” (translation mine). Each soul—that of the oppressed and vulnerable and that of the person fasting—finds itself in desperate straits. The Lord says that if his people satisfy afflicted souls he will satisfy theirs. If they provide nourishment to the hungry he will strengthen their bones. Here he tends to hearts and bodies just as he’d asked them to do.
Isaiah employs garden imagery also found in Jeremiah 17 and Psalm 1 to describe true fasters. They will be like a well-watered garden, “like a spring of water whose waters do not fail” (Isa 58:11) just as the righteous man of Psalm 1 is “planted by streams of water that yields fruit in its season and its leaves do not wither” and the man who trusts in the Lord in Jeremiah is like a “tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream and does not fear when heat comes” and that “does not cease to bear fruit.”
The person who seeks to undo oppression in all its guises and invests themselves fully in the plight of the oppressed is in good company with those who trusts the Lord (Jer 17) and whose delight is in the law of the Lord (Psalm 1). Not only will they be seen and heard, but they will be counted as “a spring whose waters do not fail,” and as possessing a soul satisfied in scorched land. While you may find mercy growing out in the wild, you will not find it missing from any of the well-watered gardens of the righteous.
Finally, those who fast in this way will be among the remnant of Israel who return after exile and participate in the rebuilding of ancient ruins, in the raising up of foundations and in the repairing of breaches (Isa 58:12). This language is often used in reference to God’s work of restoration. Isaiah 44 specifically references raising up ruins, laying foundations, and rebuilding cities as the domain of the Lord. In Isaiah 44 God is the architect of the restoration and in chapter 58 those who keep the true fast are the construction workers bringing his design to life. By reversing oppression we rebuild ruins, by sharing with the least of these we breach the gap.
The life behind the ritual and one’s posture before God and fellow man make the ritual acceptable to God. Religious ritual is effectively certified as acceptable by the life that accompanies it. Oswalt states, “How easily the perverse human mind begins to think that it is the pursuance of the form that will produce the result.”
It is entirely possible to do good in such a way that it becomes evil. God does not privilege zealous adherence to cultic ritual over concern for society’s most vulnerable. What, in God’s estimation, is better than a fast? What strikes closer to the heart of humility that God desires in his people? Concern for the most vulnerable.
The work of the servant in many ways mirrors the work of the master. Just as those who undertake a true fast are required to work to release captives and unburden the oppressed, the Lord himself does this work. Just as Jesus quotes Isaiah in Luke 4:18 to speak of his work, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,” this is servant work too, the work of a true fast. And just as the humility of God was demonstrated in his close association with the most vulnerable and unresourced through his incarnation, so will theirs—and ours—be.