Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Oct 26 2019 - Isaiah 58 – True fasting

There is something deeply repugnant about a show of religious devotion coming from one whose life is marked by cruelty and injustice. Even those who do not profess to believe in God find such lives utterly offensive and demanding of judgment – witness the outrage over the abuse of children and young people by clergy of various denominations and the abuses that have been perpetrated in boarding schools professing a Christian ethos.

In this chapter, Isaiah describes some of God's people who seem diligent in seeking God's face. They devote themselves to fasting in the belief that this will convince God of the seriousness of their devotion and compel him to hear their prayers. When God does not respond, they complain like children who cannot get what they want:

“Why have we fasted,” they say, “and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” (v.3)

Their complaint may come from genuine perplexity on their part – and that's what makes it all the more awful. At the very same time as they are fasting to try to win God's favour they are exploiting and abusing their workers. Those whose lives are marked by such acts of injustice and oppression cannot expect their prayers to be heard by God (vv. 3-4).

Fasting should be an act of self-denial, a demonstration that our relationship with God is more important to us than food and drink, more importance to us than all those things that are considered valuable by the world around us. The behaviour of those described in these verses shows that they are utterly self-centred and intent only upon securing for themselves the good things they desire – even at the expense of others. God tells them that the fasting he requires is:

to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
    and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter –
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
    and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? …
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: here am I. (vv. 6-8)

We live in a world in which injustice, oppression and self-seeking ambition which rides roughshod over all opposition are commonplace. But God's purpose is to establish his kingdom in this world through the work of his Suffering Servant – to heal this world's hurts. Jesus modelled the human life that God desires, a life devoted to healing the sick, feeding the hungry, having compassion on the poor and declaring God's judgment upon oppressive government and on rigid and compassionless religion. Jesus calls us to follow him and, in the words of verses 9-10, to:

… do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
… spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.

Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46) shows us that God is looking for a people whose lives have been transformed by his Spirit and made like the beautiful life of his Son. Such people, like their Master, will be the light of the world and will be owned by God.

Living God, keep us from that form of idolatry in which we profess devotion to you while our lives display a devotion to ourselves. By your Spirit, make our lives more like that of our Saviour and enable us to be living witnesses to the grace, beauty and power of your kingdom. 

Peter Misselbrook