ESV Isaiah 58:3 [the people of Israel say to God] ‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ [God responds to them] Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. 4 Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. 5 Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD? 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 to 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? 8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness 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, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
This text cannot be understood outside of its context. Let’s take another look at it with the help of the context. Who is saying what here? Turns out, it is the people of Israel who were saying: “Why have we fasted and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” They were complaining because they were in exile in Babylon and all their prayers and pleadings to God seemed to be unanswered. They kept the fasts, the religious ceremonies, the prayers, and the tithes. They were zealous for keeping the laws of God and following all the worship regulations. “Why have we fasted and you don’t see it?” “We have humbled ourselves, put on sackcloth and ashes, and you take no knowledge of it.” In other words, we fast, pray, worship, tithe, and obey all your commandments, but we are still suffering and full of troubles and you don’t do anything to help us.
How do we understand all of this? First we must take a look at what was taking place. Israel was in exile, separated from the Holy Land, from Jerusalem, and from the Temple. The temple sacrifices had ceased. Some of them were even taking on the customs and life of the pagan nations where they were living.
But there was a remnant of faithful believers who were zealous for the Lord. These people were trying desperately to get the Israelites back on track and to live as God’s people, to read and study God’s word, to worship and follow the dietary and religious laws. They developed the concept of the synagogue, meeting places where people could gather on the Sabbath to read and study God’s word, to pray and sing the Psalms. Without the temple priests, these religiously zealous people became teachers, called rabbis. This all began in the exile in Babylon. It was a good and essential thing to maintain faith while separated from the Temple where God’s presence was.
These zealous believers obeyed the laws of God strictly. They followed the worship laws, the fasts, the tithes, the days and times of worship. And they thought that by strictly keeping the law of God he would one day hear their prayer and deliver them from exile and send the Messiah. It was up to them to obey and fulfill the laws of God in order for the Messiah to come and deliver them. But nothing seemed to happen for 70 years.
Finally, when Cyrus the Great, king of Persia, let them return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple, these same people, zealous for the laws of God, kept working to instill obedience in the entire people of God. It was up to them to obey the laws perfectly and fulfill them completely so that God would again look upon his people with favor and bless them. They brought the idea of synagogues to Judea so people could worship God in their own towns and villages and learn the law of Moses. Some became scribes who made faithful copies of the Scriptures so that every synagogue could have a copy to study. These were the faithful believers, the Bible teachers, the scribes, and the lawyers, the legal experts. They were impeccable in their observance of the religious laws. These were the teachers and leaders of the church, the zealous believers, the ones trying to preserve the faith of the Israelite nation. Over time they became more and more organized and by the time of Jesus they were known as… the Pharisees.
So, the Pharisees were not bad people, as we often perceive of them today. They were in fact the most religious of the Israelites, the most obedient, the most strict believers, who kept all the laws and commandments of God and strictly observed all the feasts, the ceremonies, the rites of the church. They fasted regularly, tithed faithfully, prayed constantly, studied and memorized Scripture. They were the teachers, the rabbis, in the churches. The ordinary, everyday believers looked up to them, respected them, and tried to be like them. In many ways, they were the hope of Israel, for it was thought that they would save the nation and by their strict obedience and faithful service to God that would bring about the Messiah who would deliver the nation of Israel from her enemies.
But, because of all their zeal for the laws of God and the regulations for worship, over time they also got the idea that by their obedience, their strict observance of all the rules, that God would favor them and their nation. They started to get the idea that it was by what they did, their obedience, that they were saved. It was these people who were talking to God in our Old Testament lesson, “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” Things weren’t working out as they expected. They were doing all the right things, but God wasn’t doing his part.
God’s answer was essentially this: You are obeying me, fasting, humbling yourselves for your own benefit. To seek your own pleasure. You quarrel with one another. You begrudge paying fair wages to your employees and servants. You oppress people with all the burdens and laws that you place on their shoulders. This kind of religious behavior won’t make me hear your voice. I don’t seek outward obedience to the laws while inwardly you have no love for one another.
So when Jesus in our Gospel reading says that, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” he was talking about these same people as he was in the Old Testament reading. For the Pharisees were the salt of the earth and the light of the world. But they lost their saltiness. They became lamps covered over by a basket so their light did not shine. They thought that by obeying the law, God would give them his favor and save them. But Jesus is saying that they, just like us, were not really fulfilling his law which is love. God is speaking to us in the Old Testament reading: “You think that being religious and going to church I will be impressed with you and you will earn my favor. You talk and act like religious people just so that I and other people will think you are pious. The fact is, you who think you are so faithful to me oppress your workers, don’t pay them a just wage, are stingy with them. You quarrel and fight with each other at church. Of course I’m not going to hear you if this is the way you try to impress me. This is not the way I have chosen for you to worship me. Is it worshipping me by coming to church and bowing your heads and singing the liturgy and hymns without paying any attention to what you are saying? Is it by praying without meaning what you are saying? Is it just going through the motions of being Christians, or acting and talking religious? Is the true fast just obeying all my laws and regulations?”
God says, “The fast that I want is not acting religious, rather it is to love your neighbor.” That is what my law is all about. It is not mere external actions, going through the motions of religion and worship. Rather it is to embrace your brother in love, to have compassion on him in his affliction, to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house, and to cover the naked. That is the fast I desire; the worship I ask for. Not mere works, but a heart of love.
That’s why Jesus says your righteousness must be greater than the Pharisees’. All our works and rituals and obedience to the laws have no bearing on God’s favor. They will not earn you admission into heaven. Just as the Pharisees failed as followers of God, so we fail at being Christians.
But, how can our righteousness be greater than theirs? Only if we stop trying to be righteous. For our righteousness doesn’t count. It is Christ who fulfilled the law. As he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” He has fulfilled the law of God. He became a man so that now, man has fulfilled all righteousness. He is the one who truly loved his neighbor. He is the one who has had compassion on the poor and needy, who has embraced the sick and suffering. Who has taken in the homeless, the elderly, the helpless widow and the innocent child. He has fulfilled the law by his death on the cross. The law was about sacrifices for atonement of sin: Jesus atoned for our sin by sacrificing himself on the cross. The law is now fulfilled. It is done. All its requirements have been met by Jesus. So stop trying to do what has already been done for you. The cross of Jesus is your salvation. Now he gives you his righteousness so that on the day of judgment you don’t have to stand up and say, “Look at all the good things I have done.” You haven’t done as many good things as the Pharisees, but the good things you have done don’t qualify you for heaven. Rather, on the day of judgment you can stand up and say, “Look there, Jesus did it for me. He has accomplished what the law demands. He has fulfilled all it requirements. Judge Jesus, and see if he qualifies for heaven. Because I have been baptized into Jesus and covered with his righteousness. Don’t look at me, look at Jesus and see if he is more righteous than the Pharisees.
Forget your own righteous deeds. All you need is Jesus and him crucified. For as people baptized into Christ, you shall be judged on his works, his righteousness, his obedience, not yours. And his righteousness is greater than the scribes and the Pharisees. Christ crucified has qualified you for heaven. Amen.
For later in the sermon:
God then speaks back to them, “because, in the day you fast you seek your own pleasure. You pray for your own selfish desires. Then in the gospel reading Jesus tells us, “Unless your righteousness is greater than the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into heaven.”