This week’s lectionary readings continue the theme from last week of God’s passion for neighbor care. We sometimes focus so much on our relationship with God and doing what we think God would have us do that it causes our relationships with fellow humans to suffer. Martin Luther cautioned against this kind of thinking when he stressed that not just the cloistered life of monks and nuns were holy, but that we can all do God’s work and will in all of our individual vocations. To give a mundane example, filling out my expense reports correctly the first time so I don’t generate extra work for someone else is a holy and loving act, just as much as writing these columns. But sometimes we can lose sight of the fact that, in order to love God, we must love our neighbor.
The case of Isaiah 58 points out perfectly that we must couple our love of God with love of our neighbor. The Israelites cried out to God that even though they fasted, God didn’t answer their prayers (Isaiah 58:3). God’s response is, in a word, sarcastic. After asking for a witness against the House of Israel’s sins, God wonders why Israel attempts to speak as a nation that does righteousness, as if they had not forsaken God’s commandments (1-2). God pointed out that, on the same day they fasted, they had oppressed their workers (3), fought with each other and even committed acts of violence against fellow humans (4).
In case the Israelites would seek to repent individually, but not address larger systems of oppression, God forestalled that conclusion. God said that simply bowing heads, even in deep humility, or more drastic shows of repentance like wearing sackcloth and laying in ashes, were incomplete (5). Humility on its own is not true repentance for social sins that harm God’s beloved children. The fast of repentance that God demands makes amends for how we have hurt others. We must free people from unjust, inequitable systems that keep them bound and imprisoned:
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?
God goes on to say that we must divide bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house (7). Note that the Spirit, speaking through the prophet, does not say to give bread to the poor or provide housing for the homeless. No, that’s too easy and too sterile. Instead, the kind of fast, the kind of repentance, that God desires for the ways we have propped up systems that have ensnared our sisters and brothers is to divide our resources and share them with people who also need them. Not only does this begin to provide justice for folks who do not have enough to live on, but it begins to reknit the fabric of society by introducing us to our neighbors in need. This is God’s plan and desire for us.
God goes on to say that we must divide bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house
Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook from this expectation. He said we are to live our lives as a city on a hill, or a light on a stand, whose light cannot be hidden (Matthew 5:14-15). When people see how we love our neighbors, they will praise God (16).
To make sure we get the point, Jesus says he is not coming to abolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them. When I was a child, a Sunday school teacher told me that Jesus fulfilled the commandments so no one else ever had to do them. But that’s the exact opposite of what Jesus says: “Therefore, whoever annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (19). Looking ahead to next week, Jesus will even intensify Mosaic laws so there will be no excuse for abusing our neighbors.
God is passionate about making sure that we don’t just have a relationship with heaven, but that we are loving our fellow humans as well. If we seek to love our Creator, but we abuse our fellow creatures, we risk disappointing God and missing opportunities to love our siblings and fellow image-bearers.