In the Lectionary

February 5, Ep5A (Isaiah 58:1-12)

Ritual and justice don’t exist in a push-pull relationship.

In our three-year lectionary cycle, most Hebrew Bible texts come up once at most. Isaiah 58 is assigned five times. We justice-minded Christians tend to find additional reasons to turn to it as well.

Not all of them are good ones. There is a tendency to see in this text not only a fierce call to treat workers with dignity, share food with the hungry, and invite the homeless in, but also a general rejection of religious ritual. Often this is relatively benign: this matters more than that. But sometimes it involves a dismissive attitude toward Catholics, Orthodox, and high-church Protestants—toward the sort of Christians whose faith centers on a lot of doing that isn’t just doing justice. It can even take an anti-Jewish turn, alleging that the fasting and other religious practices of Isaiah’s original audience demonstrate that they had categorically missed the point of their own religion.

But the text doesn’t quite say that God cares about justice and not ritual. The prophet takes aim not at ritual generally but at empty, fraudulent ritual—at a ritual container devoid of content. Christians with limited positive experience of the faith’s more ritual-oriented traditions (I was one once) sometimes elide this distinction, perceiving ritual as empty by definition. But it isn’t—not in contemporary Christianity or Judaism, and certainly not in the religious imagination of the Hebrew Bible.