Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 5, 2023
Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12) Commentary
Over the years of writing articles and a few books, I’ve learned a lot about grammar from my editors and from a former professor turned friend who knows more about English grammar than anyone I can think of. Thanks to folks like this I’ve finally figured out (most of the time!) the “that/which” distinction and have become pretty good at spying dangling modifiers and participles (you know, sentences that inadvertently say absurd things like “Although having been burned to a crisp, Dad ate his toast anyway.”).
One other thing I learned that many editors don’t like is an overuse of “scare quotes.” Scare quotes are quotation marks that set off a word or phrase not because that word or phrase is an actual quotation from someone or some source (which is the proper use of quote marks) but because by using the quote marks you as a writer are trying to say “I don’t mean this literally. I am being ironic here.”
For instance, if your friend Naomi pays only lip service to being concerned for workers exploited in China but never actually lets that influence her shopping habits, you may write to someone (tongue firmly embedded in cheek), “Oh yes, that Naomi, she is a real ‘advocate’ for fair labor laws.” The scare quotes around the word advocate are meant to convey disbelief and irony. (Sometimes preachers do this while preaching, making quote marks in the air to create the same effect, though some find an overuse of this to be annoying, too!) At other times, however, people overuse scare quotes for no apparent reason at all. “Tonight we had ‘sloppy joes’ for dinner.” OK, so does that mean you did not really have sloppy joes but you ate something else that you don’t want to tell me about and so instead you are just calling them “sloppy joes”???
If I were to go through Isaiah 58, I could find a number of places to add some well-placed scare quotes. I would place them mostly around the word “fasting.” Because here God as much as says, “Oh yes, my people, you sure do a good job ‘fasting’ don’t you?!” And then a bit later God re-defines what true fasting is by saying it has nothing to do with not eating. A true “fast” (scare quotes again) is really about living lives of justice and fairness, not just refraining from eating.
In other words, there is a whole lot of irony and divine eye-rolling going on in this chapter. And small wonder! The picture here would be hilariously funny were it not so tragic. Because here we are shown outrageous images of people feeling all happy about observing a religious fast but then going to work and beating the snot out of their own employees, as though fasting were a license to abuse people. And then we see a still more ridiculous spectacle when we are told that when the time of fasting has ended, people make such a mad rush for the all-you-can-eat buffet that they end up getting into fist fights as they scramble to get the last egg roll.
It’s all a sham, this fasting and faux humbling of themselves. But they don’t see it. They think God sees only their pious actions and is blindly oblivious to all the other stuff. And so they come before God wearing a “I Fasted Today” sticker on their lapels and then wonder why God seems deaf to their prayers for prosperity and goodness.
God then goes on to say that they could better skip all the literal fasting so as to get at what real “fasting” is, which is lifting up the oppressed, ensuring justice for workers, feeding those who end up fasting whether they want to or not on account of not being able to afford food. “Live that way,” God says, “re-read Leviticus and Deuteronomy and then we’ll talk. Otherwise all your religious and pious pretensions are just making me sick.”
How does this happen? How do we arrive at a place in our lives where we manage to go through all the liturgical and pious motions of the faith and yet keep them walled off from other practices and opinions in other parts of life? We all have such blind spots, such disconnects.
The point is that if we are honest with ourselves, we all sooner or later perform religious rituals and actions that do not translate into how we live outside of worship or outside of specifically Christian circles. It is fully possible to hold worship services smack inside unjust societies and to never let the one challenge the other, either.
How does this happen? How do we become blind to the clear implications of our faith and of what God has revealed to us in his Word? And how do we come to think that just maybe God is a Sunday-only deity who does not notice (or much care about) what happens in our lives Monday-Saturday? However it happens, it does and it’s a rather scary prospect.
All we can do in our lives is submit ourselves—in true humility and often in true repentance—to the Word of God. There is only one measuring stick against which to size ourselves up and it’s not politics as usual or the viewpoints of the right or the left or any commentator or talking head on cable news networks. The Word of God alone is our guide and if we hope to have—as Isaiah 58 ultimately promises to also Israel—the glory of God surrounding us and guarding us in our lives, then we need to let the grace of God that alone saves us nurture in us the humility we need to acknowledge again and again how often we do things wrong in the hope that the day will come when what we do and say and sing and affirm in worship on Sundays really will translate into how we live the rest of the time.
As Jesus says in the Matthew 5 text that is paired with this Old Testament reading in the Year A Lectionary, Jesus himself did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it and to call all of his disciples to an even more radical devotion to living in ways that truly glorify God. It is not some misguided works-righteousness that makes us want to do this but the sheer gratitude we feel for the grace of God we receive through Christ Jesus our Lord, himself the living and embodied fulfillment of all God’s designs for this creation.
Some years ago many of us were troubled and saddened when a few more of the Nixon secret tape recordings were released. Because in this particular batch of tapes, one of the people heard on the recordings was the Rev. Billy Graham who was heard uttering some rather fiercely anti-Semitic remarks. Not only were Rev. Graham’s remarks at variance with his public approach to Jewish-Christian dialogue but they were, more significantly, so very, very un-Christian. To his credit, Rev. Graham apologized, and I at least have no doubt that the same divine grace he preached to millions over the years proved to be more than a match in forgiving also this sin.
But I mention this not so much to think about what Rev. Graham once said but more because of the way some people reacted to this at the time. In particular I have in mind an Op-Ed article in the New York Times in which Rev. Graham found a rather unlikely defender in the person of former Nixon legal counsel, Leonard Garment. Mr. Garment claimed at the time that the real tragedy of this incident lies less with Rev. Graham’s public shame and more with the way this erodes the boundary between private life and public life.
Garment asserted that despite the revelation of Rev. Graham’s private anti-Semitism, the evangelist’s positive public actions toward Jews should be largely unaffected. In a free-speech society, the private realm must be protected. So we should limit our assessment of public people to what they do in public and not pry into what should remain properly private. The problem with this incident is that finding out about Rev. Graham’s private words may cause some to regard his public actions as a facade, as fake. But that is a wrong conclusion to draw, Garment claims. A person should be able to say whatever he wants in private even if he acts another way in public. Both realms can be genuine.
Mr. Garment may or may not have been making a valid point for the functioning of a free society. However, from a Christian vantage point, his attempt to wall off private words from how people behave in public is wrong-headed. There is a word for ranting against Jewish people in private while embracing them as your friends in public, and the word I have in mind is not “anti-Semitism” but rather “hypocrisy.” Christians regard hypocrisy as a grave sin. But if you disconnect private thoughts from public deeds, then you cut the nerve of hypocrisy, you undermine the very possibility for such a thing as hypocrisy to exist and along with it goes also the possibility for true integrity.
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