WPRC 1: Introduction and Isaiah 58:1-12

A-18CWelcome to this new online Bible study, “Wealth and Poverty, Race and Class” (WPRC) at First English Lutheran Church. We’re going to look at some challenging and inspiring texts that help us look at issues important to today, which have been issues of importance to people of faith since ancient times. It is startling at times how relevant and urgent the biblical texts can seem for us today.

You can post comments and respond to others. Feel free to agree or disagree, but do so with respect and openness to others’ perspectives. Remember that comments posted online can easily be misread for tone and intention.

This text from Isaiah 58 gets to the heart of the matter pretty quickly. Read it through a few times and ponder it.

Shout out, do not hold back!
      Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
      to the house of Jacob their sins.
2 Yet day after day they seek me
      and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
      and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
      they delight to draw near to God.
3 “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.
4 Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
      will not make your voice heard on high.
5 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?

6 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?
7 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?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
      and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[a] shall go before you,
      the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
9 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, the speaking of evil,
10 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.
11 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.
12 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.

This is a text of great challenge to religious communities that seek to live out God’s righteousness and value their worship and devotion to God. Here are a few key points:

1. There is rebellion and lack of practicing righteousness among God’s people. Those words “rebellion” and “righteousness” might not some clear at first reading. They might sound abstract or purely religious in nature. The definition of those terms becomes clear as you read on. Righteousness is about how we care for our neighbor in need. Rebellion is resisting this call to neighborly care.

2. The people, or at least the wealthy and religious ones, assume that their acts of religious devotion and ritual should bring a benefit, a clearly defined result. We fast, we pray, so why aren’t you responding, O Lord?

3. The answer is direct: Because you oppress your workers and seek your own profit without care for the neighbor.

4. The text then redefines what religious devotion and ritual should be about: setting people free, feeding the hungry, helping the poor.

5. When the people live God’s righteousness, light will shine forth and life will flourish.
It’s a tough text to hear for people who are well-off, who are religious, who assume they are doing the right thing in their faith, but are blind to how much they are ignoring the needs of others around them, even as they do their religious devotion faithfully.

I don’t think the text is anti-worship or anti-ritual. It is anti-empty worship and ritual that does not lead to care of the poor and seeking justice within society.
Questions to ponder:

1. Do we use worship and ritual as a way to ignore the call to care for the poor and the oppressed? Does our ritual of confession and forgiveness become too easy and let us off the hook?

2. How does worship inspire us to be God’s people living God’s righteousness?

3. Who are the workers, the hungry, the poor, the homeless in our midst? What struggles are their in trying to care for them as the biblical text calls us to do?

4. What makes you uncomfortable in this text? How can that discomfort be a means of God’s word coming to us?

— Pastor Coffey