Lesson 8: Sabbath and Justice
I enrolled in a basic drawing class some years ago. We first learned about shadow and light and its many gradients before we even began to study form. I would leave class and be astonished at how different the world looked. I saw light and shadow more keenly. I thanked God as I noticed light playing on flowers and dancing among trees.
Light captivates us — candlelight on Christmas Eve, fireworks, a spectacular sunset. Light is strongly associated with God. God’s word is described as a light for our path. Deliverance by God is linked to a new light dawning. Light is connected with God’s truth and clarity of insight. God’s presence is described as light and fire in the burning bush and fiery pillar in Exodus and at Pentecost. Jesus tells us he is the light of the world and we are the light illuminating God’s presence among us.
However, in Isaiah 58, the people are not walking in the light of God, but they complain that God is not responding to their fasting. As a religious practice, fasting is going without eating as a sign of humbling oneself before God in penitence. Fasting, intense
prayer and vowing to not repeat the wrong constituted the act of fasting.
God’s response to the people’s complaint is like a sharp cleaver cutting through pretense. God says that worship without justice is hollow. Fasting as an act of repentance is a sham without the just treatment of workers. The people’s quarreling, gossip, violence and oppression of the poor are not the fruits of true repentance.
They are hypocrites. The people are coming to worship and going through the motions but the rest of the time they are doing as they please.
Jesus levels the charge of hypocrisy against the Pharisees, who profess to follow God but make life burdensome for the poor. 1 John also talks about the hypocrisy of saying that we walk in Christ’s light while hating one’s sister or brother.
Hypocrisy remains a charge leveled at the church. Jesus tells us to love one another, but Christians practice the exclusion of different races, ethnic groups, and sexual orientation. In contrast to the prophetic voices of the Hebrew Bible, American Christianity has separated personal salvation from justice in policies and law that keep the poor in poverty. In the eyes of our culture, Christians are judgmental finger-pointers, exclusionary, homophobic, and don’t act any differently than anybody else. There are few positive depictions of Christians in television and movies.
Isaiah 58:6 tells us that we are to break the chains of injustice and to let the oppressed go free. And yet, injustice runs rampant in our health care, educational systems and criminal justice practices. It is a tall order. Where do we even start?
First, we learn and listen. We can grasp God’s clear priorities by studying the prophets.
Addressing social justice requires understanding the root causes, the scope of a problem and the best practices that have brought significant change. In order to make a bigger impact, join with other churches and nonprofit organizations. If your church is concerned about homelessness, contact nonprofit affordable housing organizations in your area. Soul-weary about gun violence in our nation? Check out the “Presbyterian Peace Fellowship Gun Violence Prevention Congregational Toolkit.”
The 2020 murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and the years of accounts of Black people senselessly killed, helped the social justice ministry gain traction at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. By putting God’s word first, members with differing political viewpoints began listening intently to each other’s perspectives.
“People are willing to work and support one another when the congregation is led by theology, rather than ideology,” Rev. Thomas Watkins explained in an article that appeared in Presbyterians Today.
Churches can build on what is already done well by taking a step beyond direct help to individuals. If your church cares about children and education, ask a local school how members can support children. If your church has a food pantry, include a brochure of organizations that assist people in getting out of poverty. If your congregation has a heart for the poor, have a “Bread for the World” letter-writing event that asks congressional leaders to pass laws that can significantly reduce hunger.
When our lives align with God’s priorities, we become the light that illuminates God’s presence in the world. As Isaiah says, “If we break the yoke of oppression and spend ourselves on behalf of the hungry and oppressed, then our light will rise in the darkness, and we will know the joy of the Lord.”