Then Your Light Shall Break Forth Like the Dawn

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A

(5th Sunday in Ordinary Time)
       Sunday between February 4 and February 10
Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12)
Psalm 112:1-9, (10)
1 Corinthians 2:1-12, (13-16)
Matthew 5:13-20

Isaiah 58:1-9a, (9b-12)

False and True Worship
     Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2     Yet day after day they seek me[a]
and delight[b] to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness[c]
and did not forsake the ordinance[d] of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,[e]
they delight[f] to draw near to God.

3     “Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest[g] on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
4     Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5     Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
6     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?
7     Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8     Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator[h]  shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9     Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10     if you offer your food[i] to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11     The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12     Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
13     If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,[j]
from pursuing your own interests[k] on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;[l] 
14     then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.


Before we get into the weeds of the passage, here is a quick look at its structure.
There are three (clear ) sections:
First is the introduction: the “shout out” by God at the beginning about the rebellion against God. How they seek God and claim to “delight” to know God’s ways as though they really were a nation that did righteousness and hadn’t forsaken God’s Justice (“ordinances”). They complain that they fast but God doesn’t see them; they practice humility but God doesn’t even seem to notice.
  1. 1-3b: The prophet’s announcement of and denunciation of the people’s complaint.
Announce that they have rebelled against me
They delight to know my ways, delight to draw near (both self-serving acts)
They complain that they have fasted and humbled themselves, but God has not noticed (as though God noticing their acts of piety was the purpose of the acts of piety).
  1. 3c-5 A description of their hypocrisy
You serve your own interests (see above; they do this for their own delight and to get God to notice them)
You quarrel and fight during worship
You hit one another/humble yourselves, bow down, wear sack cloth and ashes…but:
      This kind of thing will not make your voice heard on high
  1. On the other hand, This is the fast (act of piety and worship) that I choose
Loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free, break the yoke.
Share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house.
And the conclusion: vv 8-9a. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, etc.

The passage was written after the arrival of the exiled Jews back in Jerusalem following the fifty years of captivity in Babylonia. It’s not altogether clear here, but underlying it there is a question of theodicy. That is, a question of the justice of God. “Now that we are back,” they would say, “why are things not better? God promised us a rose garden if we returned, so we did it, and there aren’t any roses.”

On top of the difficulties of replanting themselves into a world that many had never before actually seen with their own eyes, there was also intense competition between those who were returning and those who never left. After the wealthy classes, learned classes, and royal classes were forced to Babylon, those who remained took over the abandoned land and city property and after about fifty years, began to think that they owned it, And why not? That’s about three generations by their measures. We can’t know how much there was, but clearly there were disputes over who owned what, and who should leave and who should stay, when the returnees got back.

In a good many cases, their gardens and farms were in shambles, their streets were still dangerous, and their old cities were still in ruins. So, they were fighting among one another, the rich were pushing the poor and more recent settlers off of the land they had owned for fifty years, and everyone was in a foul mood. So, in response, they prayed to God, they did sacrifices, they did fasts, but when they needed God the most, they didn’t hear any answers. Or at least to them God did not appear to answer, which is the critical point of the central core of the passage’s message.

God responds to their cries by saying that while they have been expecting God to hear them, they have also been spending their daylight hours with the rich, oppressing the poor, and everybody fighting everybody.
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
4     Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.

Simply put, their rebellion against God made them unable to hear God answer their prayers. (Note that strongly. It wasn’t as though God wasn’t responding, it was that they were unable to hear what God was saying.)

When they worshiped, they searched for God in ways that were full of form and empty of content. They prayed, they fasted, they did all of the things they thought they should have been doing and still they didn’t hear God’s answers and their problems did not go away. Of course, to them, they didn’t see it as rebellion against God. Their problem was that they worshiped a different god and their idolatry of that god blinded them to what they were doing. It is possible to say that the “god” they worshiped was a god of violence and retribution and greed, and there came from that a distortion of reality that resulted from that and made them think that what they were doing was what the real God wanted them to do. Their words were saying “God” but their behavior was saying “idol,” something far smaller than God. It didn’t work.

Generally speaking, there are three basic kinds of Idolatry (and several smaller ones). First is when someone creates an actual, physical object and calls that object “God” (technically called “fetishism”). A gentle version of that today might be someone whose beloved spouse passed away years ago and they still have that photo of him or her on the dresser nd it brings out a special, worship-like adoration from the survivor. Second is worshipping something else besides God and calling that “God” (Ba’el, Ishtar, Marduk et.) Today we could think of worship of nation, or power, or military might, for examples. They think they are worshipping God, but actually they are worshipping the state or strong authoritarian leader who protects them. And finally, third is to look God straight in the eye (metaphorically speaking) and say “God” and mean something entirely different. You think, with all of your heart, mind and soul that you are worshiping the one true God. You speak to God, pray to God, worship God, but in actual fact, what you are conceiving in your mind is not what you are “seeing” with your eyes. A good example is Jonah, who spoke to God, obeyed God (after some resistance), but then in the end was totally wrong about who God was and what God stood for. He thought God was a god of revenge and punishment, when in fact God was a god of grace and forgiveness. In the end of the story he is sulking because all his life he looked at God and thought one thing while God was actually another.

In the Christian scripture there is a similar story about Jesus (yes, I know he is not God, but the principle will be the same). Peter is the first and bravest of the disciples and is able (enabled?) to say “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” He’s right. He nails it. He has described it perfectly. His words (with the help of Matthew, but that’s for another time) and title are accurate and correct. But when Jesus begins to tell him what those words and title actually mean, in terms of giving and sacrificing and suffering, Peter blows up and at him and they duke it out in an argument over the meaning of the concept of “messiah.” He says Jesus the Messiah, but he means Jesus the revolutionary.

The people of Israel in Isaiah 58 are doing the same thing. They worship properly and they fast and pray and act religious because they think that God is a god who gives a rip about those things. But God doesn’t.

They say, God didn’t respond when we fasted, so let’s fast better next time. And if God doesn’t get it that time, we’ll fast differently or longer, or harsher, or better, or…something. Some way we’ll find a way to fast in a way that God would choose.

But God says,
6    “Is not this the fast that I choose:
         to loose the bonds of wickedness,
          to undo the straps of the yoke,
     to let the oppressed go free,
          and to break every yoke?
7      Is it not lto share your bread with the hungry
          and bring the homeless poor into your house;
     when you see the naked, to cover him,
          and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Note that there are two parts to God’s answer:
First, they had to stop acting wickedly towards others (loose the bonds of wickedness . . . undo the heavy burdens . . . let the oppressed go free . . . break every yoke). Getting right with God begins by stopping the evil we do towards others.

Secondly, then, they had to start acting lovingly towards others (share your bread with the hungry . . . cover those without clothing, and to not hide yourself from your own flesh). Getting right with God continues by doing loving things for other people.

Now, this could be interpreted to mean something like works righteousness. That is, “If you do these things then God will like you” (or whatever). The “if…then” quality of it would lead to that conclusion. But that’s probably not correct. I don’t think the issue is that if you do these things then God will hear your prayers. It’s more like, if you don’t do these things then you, by your own behavior are separating yourself from God and you will not be able to hear God’s voice. It’s your action that pulls you out of God’s grace and spirit and into a state of separation and misery. Not God’s action of punishing you if you don’t sing the hymns loud enough.

God’s presence is a gift. Correct, accurate, polished forms of worship, or even important deeds of justice and mercy, will not make God like us. However, what those things can do is to put us in line with God’s presence. Self-centeredness, injustice and greed, mean cutting ourselves off from God. If we deny our own self-interest, and embrace God’s values (justice and mercy) then we will hear God’s already-existing words (v. 9a; see 52:6; 65:1) and our “light will shine in the darkness.”

Perhaps it’s helpful to point out here, with the IVP Bible Background Commentary, that fasting had little attestation in the Ancient world except in Israel. And when it occurred there it was more related to mourning and making a request of God (or both). “The principle is that the importance of the request causes an individual to be so concerned about his or her spiritual condition that physical necessities fade into the background.” Fasting created purification and humbling and drew you nearer to God because you had to not focus on your own bodily needs in order to fast (Ps 69:10; 102:4).[m]

Evidently, however, the point here was that at least some of the worshippers were fasting as a way of showing their devotion to God, and not as an outgrowth of it. According to the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, it was “a means of opening oneself to the work of God, expressing profound grief over sin and pointing to one’s ultimate dependence on God for all forms of sustenance…But fasting was widely abused, so it can also carry the imagery of hypocrisy and religious display” (Isaiah 58; Matthew 6).[n]

And Finally: 
Here’s one last, and very important, point on an obscure word in v. 10:
At the end of our reading for today, there is a last response from God, a final promise of hope. Look for it in the italicized words below:
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10     if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

You can’t tell this in English, but the nrsv leaves out a word in the Hebrew that gives a very interesting nuance that shouldn’t be missed. The nrsv leaves out the word nephesh, which generally is translated “breath” or “soul.” It means one’s “inner being.” By overlooking this, the nrsv misses the very significant message that the act of offering food to the poor and afflicted, is also an act of offering one’s self. The old rsv came closer. It had “If you pour your self out on the hungry,” which at least personalized the act somewhat. The niv has “if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry…” Are we getting closer? The most pointed (perhaps too much so), is the Authorized Version, which has “If thou draw out thy soul to the hungry.” It’s such an unusual phrase that some interpreters suggest that it was an early typo. And there are some (but not many) early manuscripts that replace “soul” with the more logical “bread.”[o]

But I don’t think so. I (and others, by the way) think that there the author was trying to say that there is a direct link between the acts of justice and mercy and kindness and the condition of the soul or spirit of the actor. That is, at the very least, our work (which is critical and necessary in order to have a relationship with God and to help heal an increasingly broken world) is as much a pouring out and sharing of our own spirits as it is a top down rich helping poor exercise.

[a] “Seek me” (דַּרְיׄושׁ, דָּרַשׁ (darash) v. “seek,” “enquire,” “search”
[b] “Delight” (ָחֵפץ ḥāp̱ēṣ). V. “to delight in,” “to have one’s own pleasure.” Note that this word is used three times in this verse. Twice in 3a,b, and then translated as “own interests” in 3c.
[c] “Righteousness” ( צְדָקָה tsâdaqah). n f. “righteousness” “justice” “right” “righteous acts”
[d] “Ordinance” ( מִשְׁפָּט mishpat). n m. Usually translated “justice” and could have been so here. Also, “judgment” “right” “cause” “lawful” “worthy” “law.” “Ordinance,” gets at the legal side of the term, but misses the ethical.
[e] “Judgements” ( מִשְׁפָּט mishpatim).  n m. Plural of mishpat. All the more reason why “mishpat” in the previous line should be translated Justice, to make it apparent that it matches its plural form here.
[f] “Delight” See above on the three usages of the same verb in  one verse.
[g] nrsv note:  “Own interest” twice earlier in the verse this is translated as “delight”
“Own interest” (ḥēp̱eṣ, n. masc.). Usually, as the nrsv note indicates, this word would be translated “delight,” “pleasure,” “desire,” etc. It means to long for something or incline toward something. But in this setting, it means to desire one’s “own interest,” hence the interpretation in the translation as something selfish. Unfortunately to change the translation for the third usage, breaks the rhythm, the repetition, which “highlights the problem. What the people think is legitimate worship is really nothing but selfishness. (J. Clinton McCann, “Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A,” in The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, Volume One (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 372.  
[h] NRSV: Or vindication
[i] “if you offer your food…” Missing from this translation is the word nepeš or nephesh, which generally is translated “breath” or “soul.” One’s “inner being.” By overlooking this, the NRSV misses the message that the act of offering food is also an act of offering one’s self. The old RSV had “if you pour yourself out for the hungry,” which at least personalized the act somewhat. The NIV has “if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry…” The most pointed (perhaps too much so), is the Authorized Version, which has “If thou draw out thy soul to the hungry.”
[j] Literally, “if you turn your feet from the sabbath.”
[k] “Own Interests” (ֵחֶפץ ḥēp̱eṣ). N. Masc. “delight,” “pleasure.” Related to hapes above, v. 3. The phrase would have been better translated, “Pursuing your own delights.” And similarly, 13d should be “serving your own delights.”
[l] NRSV: Heb or speaking words. Some have suggested that this relates to speaking in the Temple. More likely it means not to do business transactions in the Temple.
l ver. 10; Ezek. 18:7; [Matt. 25:35]
[m] Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).
[n] Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit, Tremper Longman et al., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), p. 273.
[o] For example, The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, ed, J. J. S. Perowne, (Cambridge University Press: 1882).