The preacher and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, once said that: ‘God is not interested in religion; God is interested in human beings…’
She was thinking about the verses which lead up to the ones that we have today from Isaiah. I think that both Isaiah, and Barbara, have something to say to us as well as to their originally intended audience.
Not matching up
The people that Isaiah was addressing were complaining that they had been faithful at going to worship and in their fasting and reading of Scripture – but, on the face of it, God is not interested. He seemed to be absent. God had said in reply: I’m not ignoring you, you’re ignoring me! What you do on the Sabbath isn’t matching up with what you’re doing for the rest of the week.
If you want to know where I am, says God, then you can find me volunteering at Porch Boxes or Caritas handing out food or I’m at Fairfield A&E with the doctors and nurses. That’s from the Ian Banks Paraphrase version, if you’re interested!
The wake-up call for the Israelites was that you cannot love God with all your heart and soul and strength unless you love your neighbour. Unless.
A pile of rubble
To put this chapter in context, imagine that in months or years from now, there will be peace in Ukraine. The Russians have gone and the people can rebuild their cities and their lives. In your minds’ eye, picture for a moment some of the terrible scenes of utter destruction that we’ve seen on the TV. Cities like Mairupol, where barely a building is left standing.
The people in our OT reading were in a similar position. Forced into exile after the complete destruction of their capital city by an invading force, they’re now back, after years away, and with aid money from Cyrus the Persian to help them rebuild Jerusalem and their beloved temple.
You might think everyone would be full of optimism to be back. But Jerusalem remained a pile of rubble for a long time after their return. All of the poetry and promises in Isaiah 40-55 now seemed hollow and burned out.
And the reason that Jerusalem was still in ruins was because their social structure was shattered too – not just the infrastructure. Their society was a pile of rubble – not just the buildings. The experience in Jerusalem then might serve as a lesson for Ukraine now and indeed for anywhere where tragedy has hit.
The newly returned people were divided economically and socially and religiously. The wealthiest were taking advantage of the economically vulnerable and not even paying them minimum wage (Nehemiah 5:1-7). Because of their experience in the past, there was a fear of foreigners and a fear of change, which drove them to be obsessed with purity of language and ethnicity. The priests embezzled the tithes meant for those who relied on them for their food and wellbeing – and the political elite syphoned off the money given by Cyrus for the temple. (See Nehemiah 13 and Haggai 1)
Meanwhile that same elite conveniently blamed the foreigners for delays with building the temple – even though those same foreigners were eager to help (Ezra 4). And those who returned from exile considered themselves superior to those who had remained, who they thought of as being tainted somehow by the occupation (Ezra 10). It was a mess.
It’s a story that rings sadly true today, doesn’t it, of foreign aid money not going where it was intended. And you can quite imagine the risk of nationalistic fervour in Ukraine for years after the war finishes, where anything from another country and particularly Russia is treated with suspicion.
Then in steps our prophet Isaiah to give the people a telling-off and offer them a vision of an alternative community. He speaks of justice and righteousness and of spirituality. They should be socially-minded and inclusive of both foreigners and those of different sexual orientation (56:3-8). He calls for liberation of any who are oppressed and for the building of a new society.
It’s worthy of any Conservative Leadership campaign leaflet – or any other political party come to that. But our prophet would have butted heads with any of the nationalistic messages being sent out by those in charge. These were the grandees, the people who had feathered their nests and had something to lose.
At the start of this chapter, we find that on the face of it these same people are religiously observant. They regularly go to worship and they fast and publicly show contrition – but they do it to get something from God in return.
God’s response is that all this worship and ritual is completely meaningless unless the economic and social oppression is stopped. But if they undertake reform, then God would again dwell in their midst.
Never run dry
To that end, in our verses today we have a series of statements. If you do this, then God will do that. If you feed the hungry and tend to the needs of the oppressed, then we have a starting point for healing the community. One naturally follows the other. That healing will be so overwhelming that you will feel like sunshine breaking into a gloomy day or a spring of water that will never run dry.
But the Hebrew here actually goes much further than that. It’s not ‘offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted’ as translated on our sheet – it’s to give one’s whole being (nephesh) in the service of the hungry and the oppressed.
To act justly is to give all of yourself. In return, your whole being will be satisfied and continually refreshed. And when Isaiah says ‘your’ he is talking to individuals, each one of us separately. It’s not enough to point to someone else and say well they’re doing it, so as a community we’re OK. The expectation is that each and every one of us plays a part – and that each and every one is looked after.
Because as long as some remain oppressed, then everyone is living in an unhealthy environment. Until we are all free, we are none of us free. That communal transformation creates the possibility of God’s real blessing for all.
And on top of that they commercialised the Sabbath, using it for their own interest and gain. Here the prophet goes to town, as well he might in our society today. The Sabbath was to be holy. People were to do no work. And that meant all and everyone. The Hebrew word for ‘Sabbath’ means ‘to stop’. In Genesis 1, God took his time making the heavens and the earth – and then he stopped. He didn’t show up at work that day. When Nehemiah became governor, he closed down anyone buying or selling on the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:15-22).
How do you spend your Sundays? Whilst the Sunday Opening Hours horse has bolted, we still have choices about how we spend our time. The Sabbath should be a delight, as verse 13 has it. And it should be a time of compassion too, as we learn from the Gospel. A compassion that sees broken bodies and broken souls – and then does something about it. Because God is not interested in religion but in human beings.
A good question
Here in Bury, with our Vicar moving on elsewhere, we will have a Benefice profile to put together which describes both ourselves and the person that we want for the future. How will we truthfully describe ourselves? Do we do all the religious bits on a Sunday but forget our neighbours during the rest of the week? Or can we truthfully say that we love the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and strength – and love our neighbours too? Perhaps that’s a good question for all Christians everywhere to ask themselves. Amen
God is not interested in religion was delivered by Ian Banks at St John with St Mark’s Bury on 21 Aug 2022. It was based on Isaiah 58:9b-14.
- Taylor, B.B. (1995). Gospel Medicine. Cowley Publications.