In the Lectionary

August 25, Ordinary 21C (Isaiah 58:9b-14)

So much of human religiosity comes down to a hoax we perpetrate on God.

On the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the prophetic reading (Haftarah) lands like a stick of dynamite upon the congregation. By late morning, when Isaiah 57:14–58:14 is read, most of us are hungry and thirsty and perhaps a little irritable from fasting. We’re right smack in the middle of the holiest day of the year, a day centered on the hard work of repentance and the joyous possibility of forgiveness, when the words of the prophet come thundering at us, questioning just what it is we think we’re doing in God’s house. “Do you call that a fast,” Isaiah asks, “a day acceptable to the Lord?” (58:5).

The implicit answer is that no, what we are doing in fact bears little relation to what a true fast would look like. We want to be near to God (58:2), but we don’t want to do or be what we’d need in order for that closeness to be real. We want to fast, go through the motions of ritual, perhaps impress ourselves or our neighbors with our piety—but it turns out God has no time for this kind of insincerity and hypocrisy: “No, this is the fast that I desire: to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke and to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin” (58:6–7).

It’s important to understand that the prophet is not op­posed to ritual per se. He is opposed to religious fraudulence, to pious words uttered by impious, hardened hearts. (A hardened heart is an impious heart, no matter how hard we pretend otherwise.)