by Linda McMillan
God is like the lover who just can’t see your point of view.
Have you ever had a lover’s quarrel? I’ll go first… Yes, I have. I won’t make you tell your story, and all I’ll say about mine is this: At the height of our argument we were equally aghast that the other didn’t see things our way. Simply aghast.
That is what’s going on between God and Israel in this morning’s reading from Isaiah. Listen to what God says… and I’ll paraphrase it:
“You people just carry on as if all is well, can’t you see that you are completely off track with these sacrifices? That’s not what I want at all! Honestly, what’s wrong with you?
And, indulge me while I paraphrase what Israel said to God:
“We are doing everything right… praying… fasting… you name it, we’re your holy people. But you won’t give us any justice! Can’t you see how great we are? Honestly, God, what’s wrong with you?”
You can see that they are at an impasse.
It is unclear who wrote this passage, but he sure knows how to set up a drama. It is also unclear when it was written, but probably well after the exile. Yet, this week we find Israel still complaining that God is silent. They had fasted on the fifth and seventh month for seventy years after Cyrus the Great redeemed them from the Babylonians, but still God did not answer. They claimed to be humble, but God did not seem to notice. They’d been robbed, really. They’d spent 70 years in captivity, their city was in ruins, the temple destroyed, God had abandoned them, and now that they were doing everything they knew to do they still couldn’t get any justice!
I don’t think any of our readers here at The Café have experienced captivity, or had their city destroyed – though there are people in the world who have… lots of them – But, one common theme in talking to people these days is that they feel somehow robbed. Their wages haven’t gone up in ten years, but the rent keeps rising. It’s unjust! Or, somebody hurt them, hurt them badly, and they feel aggrieved. They want some justice! Some even argue that Donald Trump rode into power on a wave of unsatisfied rage about the real injustices in our society. And now others are vowing to fight against his unjust regime. It seems like everybody wants a little justice. Maybe you’re looking for some justice too.
A lot of people like to cite 2 Chronicles 7:4 when they talk about setting things right in our country. It goes like this:
if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
And they use that verse to try and make everybody else be humble and pray, and turn from their wicked liberalism, homosexuality, transgenderism, feminism, legalism, overly-done orthodoxy, whatever… It’s hard to believe, but that’s what they do.
Here’s the thing: Even if everybody turned from all their sin — real or imagined – and prayed and fasted for seventy years, and was somehow as humble as a fish with a hook in its mouth… if all that somehow happened… God would not notice it. God is like the lover who just can’t see your point of view.
There are lots of good reasons to fast, pray, and turn from whatever wicked ways you may have, but getting God to do something for you is not one of them. God is rarely manipulated like that, and that is what Israel was doing, and what many of us are doing too! We want our piece of justice, after all. But, even if your cause is just, even if you really deserve a little justice… God just doesn’t play that game. The thing about fasting and praying is that when you do, it is more likely to change you than to change your situation.
Israel’s fasting didn’t change them at all, and it certainly didn’t change God. The thing about their sacrifices, their fasting, and praying is that they were not connected in any way to the work of justice. Fasting from food is only a reminder that the primary fast is a fast from affluence and ease. The public humility which is on regular display these days is only a reminder that the most important way to be humble is to honor those whom God is most interested in: The poor in spirit, those who mourn, the seekers, those who make peace, the merciful, the meek, those who populate the margins of the sacred society of Jesus and may even be about to fall off the edge!
In some way or another all of us have experienced some injustice or vulnerability. In other ways we have been the oppressor too. The thing to remember is that whether you speak to God as a saint or a sinner, God is not interested in the rightness of your prayer, or the correctness of your sacrificing. God is interested in vulnerability, tenderness, and the parts of your heart that aren’t on display, the parts that are poor, mourning, seeking, the parts of your heart that long for peace, mercy, and meekness.
We don’t have to worry about getting it right. That’s not important. We have to worry about getting it honest. That’s the sacrifice God wants.
Linda McMillan lives in Yangzhong, China. She is currently visiting friends in Yangon, Myanmar.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
Bible scholars are pretty clear that a prophet named Isaiah wrote the first part of the book of Isaiah sometime in the late eighth century. In Chapter 40, though, the text starts talking a lot more about the return from the Babylonian captivity and so scholars think that this second part – sometimes called Second Isaiah – was written considerably later. The rest of the book, from Isaiah 55 onward, is a collection of essays and writings which seems to be in the Isaiah school, but which were written still later, in about the fifth century
So to recap…
Sometimes called Proto-Isaiah
Sometimes called Deutero-Isaiah…Writings from the time of the Babylonian captivity, or exilic writings.
Sometimes called Trito-Isaiah… Writings from after the exile, or postexilic writings.
Obviously, you can’t take this to be the definitive word on it, but it’s a good enough guide. You might seek out the work of Bernhard Duhm, a good old Lutheran, for more on this particular take on it.
Zachariah 7:4 and 5… Then the word of the Lord Almighty came to me: “Ask all the people of the land and the priests, ‘When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?
There are only two other instances of fasting in the Tanach before this one: One is when the Jabishites mourned Saul’s death (I Samuel 31) and the other is when David fasted to save the life of a child (2 Samuel 12). Interestingly these instances of fasting didn’t achieve anything. Saul remained dead and the child died.
I write about sins which are real and imagined because there is a lot of imaginary sin out there.
Rashi’s interpretation of verse 5 is “Will such be the fast I will choose, a day of man’s afflicting his soul? Is it to bend his head like a fishhook and spread out sackcloth and ashes?” The same word is used this way in Job 41:2… “Canst thou put an hook into his nose?”
“Undo the fetters of wickedness”, and “To untie the bands of perverseness”… also from Rashi