February 9, Epiphany 5A (Isaiah 58:1–12; Psalm 112:1–10; 1 Corinthians 2:1–16; Matthew 5:13–20)
Putting flesh on the bones of justice
If last week’s texts were a call of hope, this week’s texts are a call to practical action.
The Isaiah text comes from part of the book commonly referred to as Third Isaiah, and our Micah reading from last week may well have been echoing it: “Is not this the fast 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?” The passage was likely written during the period of fasting following exile. The people are fasting, but life does not seem to be going well. In this text, Isaiah puts flesh on the bones of the concept of justice: we see him tackling just labor and employment practices, sharing bread, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, showing oneself to your own kin. These specifics are the “how” to last week’s “what.”
The true fast will be a life filled with acts of concrete justice and mercy that are practical—that touch upon basic human needs such as clothes, food, wages, and shelter. Isaiah is clear about this and instructs listeners to be as generous as possible, to share not sparingly but abundantly: “Pour yourself,” Isaiah writes, or more directly, “pour out yourself.” The text then moves into the conditional: if these things are done, then the Lord will say, “Here I am.” The connection between religious ritual (fasting) and acts of justice and mercy calls to mind the quote from John Chrysostom: “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the Church door, you will not find him in the chalice.”