March 6, 2019
“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. . . .
Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, . . . if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. — Isaiah 58:3–12
Singular and plural. The “you” in this passage is singular and plural. In the original Hebrew it is plural, and the “you” that God is exhorting is the whole people of God. As a people they have been ignoring the hungry and needy, they have been tolerating injustice, they have been oppressing workers.
But there’s no “you” plural without a “you” singular, and in God’s calling out to the people we hear why the two go together: “If you remove. . . the pointing of the finger. . .”
That’s the trick for us in a plural “you.” We point at others either because others are the ones who are taking care of the needy — so we can say, “Hey, we’re doing what you said” — or because we hold others responsible and point to them as the ones who are at fault. God’s words to the people here through Isaiah are words of tremendous substance, and the actions God calls for are clearly not optional if what one really desires is to live with God. It’s precisely because the “you” is plural — that God has called us as individuals together — that our capacity for living together in love and justice is the capacity for living with God.
I wonder sometimes when I read these passages if God is really asking if we are willing to live with one another and with God in anything that resembles God’s grace. Why wouldn’t we be? Consider the images above, of light, healing, God leading us and God’s glory walking behind us. God will answer our calls and say, “Here I am”; our needs will be satisfied in parched places.
Our neediness, too, is expressed in the singular and plural: “our” needs as God’s people, “our” needs as individuals beloved by God within God’s beloved community.
Rev. Dr. Michelle J. Bartel, Former Coordinator of Theological Education and Seminary Relations, PC(USA) Office of Theology, Formation & Evangelism
Today’s Focus: Ash Wednesday
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
God of grace, as we prepare for this season of Lent, equip us with perseverance. Use our brief lives to your glory. Empower us as your disciples, that even when the land is parched, we may know your presence with us, transforming what seems barren into life overflowing. Amen.