Marcus Borg

True Religion According to Isaiah 58

Note to non-Ridley College readers: I have produced this piece as part of an exercise for my study of the book of Isaiah. The intention is to try and contextualize a portion of that book for a particular audience, drawing out the passage’s significance for people today. After posting their work, students taking the subject have to examine and comment on their classmates’ efforts.

This is a blog post-cum-article, such as you might find in an online publication like The Gospel Coalition, or a print publication like The Melbourne Anglican.

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I didn’t agree on all that much with the late biblical scholar, Marcus Borg. His Jesus seemed more like a 1960s radical than a first-century Palestinian Jew; his doctrine of Scripture was a little too low for my taste (Borg probably would have said that the Bible is the product of various communities that were confronted by the ineffable power of the numinous); and his understanding of biblical politics – such as they are – bore an uncanny resemblance to modern-day progressivism.

But one area in which I found Borg to be quite insightful was his insistence on the deep, abiding connection between one’s relationship with God (or “the holy”, as Borg might have termed it) and a commitment to justice in the world. For him, the two went hand-in-hand; anything less was a betrayal of true religion. Reading Marcus Borg at this point was to be reminded afresh of a fundamental truth that had become lost amidst hurly-burly of everyday life.

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Isaiah 58:1-14 perfectly distils this theme, one that is found repeatedly throughout Scripture. In the space of a few verses, the prophet denounces a narrow, restrictive kind of religion, concerned mainly with empty ritual and ceremony. In its stead, he places a full-bodied spirituality front-and-centre, one that is focused on both God and neighbour – a religion that is both “vertical” (in relation to the Creator) and “horizontal” (in relation to one’s fellow image-bearers).

For Isaiah, labouring for justice is not an adjunct or an add-on; rather, it is a manifestation of true religion. In response to the complaints of God’s people – who petulantly ask why they have bothered fasting and humbling themselves, for no apparent gain (v.3) – the prophet exposes their hypocrisy. They might have prided themselves on their holiness, but as the succeeding verses demonstrate, their vaunted religiosity was hollow, a sham. Their fasts ended in conflict (v.4), whilst the fleeting moments they gave to God (v.5a) paled into insignificance next to the large swathes of time spent living for themselves and ignoring the plight of the poor (vv.6-7). I like the way Paul Hanson, an OT scholar, summed up the predicament of Israel at this time:

“[They were a] community where those who regarded themselves as the most religious had converted religion into private acts of study and ritual, thereby leaving the entire realm of social relations and commerce under the dominion of ruthless, self-serving exploitation”.

Quite so. The Israelites of Isaiah 58 had allowed a corrupt form of their religion to colonize the far loftier requirements of devotion to Yahweh, confining their obligations to discrete acts of piety. Meanwhile, those weightier matters of justice and liberation were forgotten about, left to wither away like the poor wanderers among them.

What God commands for his people in Isaiah 58 is a “fast” that conforms to, and reveals, his deeper intentions for those who call themselves his disciples. It is a “fast” from injustice, oppression and exploitation, and studied neglect of the downtrodden. It is, indeed, a “fast” that aims to satisfy the painful longings of the empty and broken. If the people do these things, Isaiah says, their light will break forth like the noonday sun (vv.8-10), and God shall truly be their delight. They will, in other words, reveal the light (=truth) of God (cf. 2:5), all the while being genuinely reconciled to their Creator and King.

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This isn’t simply an OT concern – part of that dreaded law that Christians can now do away with. Jesus and the writers of the NT (most of whom were Jews) were deeply committed to the ongoing relevance of the OT Scriptures for the spiritual and moral formation of disciples in the early church. Indeed, the NT is suffused with this ethos, for both it and its predecessor are grounded in the fundamental belief that every single person is a precious image-bearing being, deserving of justice and respite from exploitation.

Examples are too numerous to list, but a few will make things clear. Just think about the way Jesus excoriates the “selective righteousness” of the religious leaders, who assiduously tithe their spices, but neglect the foundational matters of justice and compassion (Luke 11:42). Or what about his announcement in Luke 4:16-21, where he quotes from Isaiah 61, proclaiming himself to be the fulfilment of the anointed one, who would liberate the captives and loose the chains of injustice? In what could be seen as a programmatic statement, Jesus stands in the synagogue, and describes his mission as one marked by the coming of deliverance in a great act of Jubilee. And let’s not forget a NT writer like James, who says in 1:27 that one of the characteristics of “pure religion” is to look after orphans and widows (read: the vulnerable and weak). If one is to be a genuine worshiper of God, devotion to those who have fallen prey to the harsh vagaries of this world is non-negotiable.

For Christians, then, the values and principles enshrined in a passage like Isaiah 58 aren’t irrelevant, or a part of some by-gone era superseded by the coming of grace; they are part of the warp and woof of holy living, now fulfilled in the person and ministry of Jesus himself. The “light” of Isaiah 58, which he said would dawn with renewed commitment to justice, is seen in Jesus’ light, which pushes back the darkness (John 8:12). But it’s also not dissimilar to the light that Jesus’ disciples are meant to shine, by which they reveal in their good works the greatness and holiness of God (Matt 5:16).

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The words of Isaiah 58 are bracing indeed. I’m not suggesting, of course, that anyone reading this is guilty of exploiting the poor, or of actively perpetuating oppression. But we need to take these words, echoed in the voices of Jesus and the first disciples, with a great deal of gravity. Moreover, we need to allow the God who inspired this passage then to use it now – searching our hearts for signs that we, too, may have slipped into conventional, narrow, or formal religion. I know that as I read these verses, I stand exposed as someone who all too easily falls into the trap of empty ceremony – thinking that my church attendance, for example, or my Bible reading is enough. And I cannot help but recognize that like the Israelites of this text, I am also guilty of “turning away” from other human beings (Isa 58:7c), of shutting my eyes to the misery and the brokenness around me. We may not be responsible for another’s exploitation; but how often do we ignore the plight of that person, or determine to remain uninformed about the travails of the oppressed?

How does one respond? It’s true that we live in a culture of self-interest, marked by materialism and a spirit of acquisitiveness. Such is the culture’s strength that it can be difficult to fully embrace the vision of Isaiah 58. But there is hope. Although each of us may have fallen short of these ideals, let us also remember that God is able to do exceedingly more than we can imagine. He is more than capable of re-making us; indeed, that is the whole point of being welcomed into his redeemed community. Moreover, he knows we are dust and ashes, and prone to following that which is merely convenient or comfortable. His grace is all-abounding, and is more than sufficient to forgive us our failings, and equip us for a life spent in service of others.

This is God’s promise. But what else should we do to live as people who manifest the spirit of Isaiah 58? Well, it is important to remain consistent in prayer. It’s unlikely God will change us without some openness on our behalf. Prayer avails much, and if we think we are lacking when it comes to a commitment to the poor and vulnerable, then it’s incumbent upon us to petition God for transformation. He will do much for us – and within us – but that comes with a receptive heart, made all the more so through prayer. Next, we might think about our posture: how do we position ourselves in this world? Do we open ourselves up to opportunities to assist and support those who broken or downtrodden? Or do we confine ourselves to acts of devotion and piety that allow us to remain walled-off from the discord around us? Along with prayer, then, a re-orientation of our goals, attitudes and way of life may well be necessary. It requires a conscious, intentional change – at least at some level – of one’s habits and daily rhythm. Such a posture means being alive to the possibility that God might use us in even the mundane moments of life. It entails deliberation about how we can reach out beyond the merely conventional or socially acceptable to those who are suffering. I think we’d be surprised by the opportunities that present themselves, right before our eyes.

Finally, there are practices, which are closely allied to our basic stance towards the broken. I’m not suggesting that we all need to abandon our current lives, move to a developing nation, and minister to people living in a slum. Practicing justice and loving-kindness could be as simple as reaching out to a neighbour you know facing financial hardship; or befriending someone at church who (as it were) comes from the “wrong side of the tracks”; or writing letters to your local MP on a raft of justice issues (asylum seekers languishing on Manus Island, abortion, or what have you). These are but a few examples.

We all face the cacophony of modern-day life, and we may often be distracted by all it has to offer. However, even in the midst such a dazzling array of amusements and consumer delights, there exist opportunities – even in the most “ordinary” of circumstances – to put the ethos of Isaiah 58 into action. In that way, we shall show ourselves to be God’s true people, following in the footsteps of his Son.

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One final point before rounding off. I have focused mainly on what Isaiah 58 says about one’s commitment to justice. But remember what I said in reference to Marcus Borg: he talked of the indivisible bond between that commitment and devotion to God. If it’s easy to restrict one’s piety so that it has absolutely no effect on the world around us, then it’s also easy to think that social concern and a thirst for justice are enough. However, Isaiah 58 doesn’t promote a secular political programme. Rather (and as Marcus Borg recognised), it offers a distillation of the two halves of true religion, both of which are necessary for it to remain genuine. Here, I cannot help but end with another quote from Paul Hanson:

“Acts of loving kindness toward the neighbour do not exhaust the life of faith. They culminate in worship. The life of compassionate justice comes to its most sublime expression in the delight one finds in the Lord (v.14)…Isaiah 58 states God’s will with a clarity that wins the assent of all that is true within us…[evoking] our deepest sense of joy with the invitation to delight in the Lord through worship purified by loving-kindness”.

Amen.

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