N.T. Wright has taught me, among other things, always to look for the overarching story in which any theological system locates itself. In his The New Testament and the People of God, he suggests that, among the questions that any “world-drama” answers are (and I paraphrase) “What’s wrong with the world as it stands?” and “Who or what (if anyone or anything) can set things to right?” The answers that any given theological tradition offers to those questions are immensely important: the character of injustice, malfunction, underdevelopment, and sin, are always function of the grand story, and the oracles of the latter-day, post-exilic prophet Isaiah are not exceptions to that.
The Deuteronomic notion that YHWH blesses and curses is no stranger to the prophet, but Isaiah 58 expands on that notion to remind Israel that nothing less than the reputation and desires of YHWH are at stake in the ongoing life of Israel. “Declare to my people,” the oracle comes to Israel, their sins, their iniquities. Then, perhaps to the people’s surprise, the prophetic word begins a catalog precisely of those things that ancient religions regarded as piety, not sin: they bow down, they worship, and most pointedly they fast.
But what kind of fast is this? The oracle is insistent that such observance, in the context of injustice, is no fast at all but a deceptive attempt to tell the wrong story of YHWH. This is no mere Canaanite tyrant-god, waiting for the blood of animals and smiling on the domination of the strong over the weak. This is YHWH of hosts, whose arm is raised against the oppressor and whose people are the former slaves, the ‘abiru, the cast-offs of Empire. YHWH is not interested in being the most intense version of the worst gods, and YHWH is not at all interested in bolstering the fortunes of a nation who acts like any other nation. What possible reason, YHWH seems to ask, would I lend my power to THAT sort of life?
Many of my fellow church-attenders can easily quote the opening line of Psalm 14: “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God.” (I tend to remember Bible verses in English, when I remember them, in the King James version.) What I find less common is the person who can say what such nay-saying means, ethically, for the Psalmist. Saying there is no God is ultimately not an intellectual or even a confessional move but to eat the poor as one eats bread, to shame the plans of the poor, for whom YHWH cares. That’s the sort of practical atheism that even the most observant sacrifice-maker is living out in post-exilic Yehud: these folks say the name of YHWH, but they do so while pretending that the same Lord does not see their exploitation of the workers (58:3) and fighting amongst themselves rather than living in harmony (58:4).
So there’s what’s wrong: Israel, whom YHWH chose so that the nations could see a better way, is just more of the same. Their sense of righteousness is rooted not in their particular story of liberation and common good but in the same stories of domination that define all the nations. So what’s to be done? Justice.
Believe me, I know just how much that j-word has been overused in the last few years, especially since the nomination of a certain Democratic presidential candidate in 2008. But there it is. When righteousness takes its character from the Exodus, when the poor are fed and the stranger welcomed, then will Israel’s light once more rise. Then will the waters flow. Then will even the ancient ruins become cities again.
One more, I don’t have the sense, reading this passage, that the oracle has to be an empirical prediction to have its rhetorical force. Instead, this is a vision of Israel’s long course, and by extension the Church’s. When we lose sight of why God has saved us in the first place, there’s not much point in being saved, as far as God can tell. The vineyard must yield grapes, and the fruit of the LORD is justice.
May our lives always bear the fruit whose aroma is sweet to the one true God.