Isaiah offers instructions for being the light of the world

By Glen Argan

Those who compiled the Lectionary showed a stroke of genius – or divine inspiration – when they linked Matthew’s Gospel on the salt of the earth and light of the world with Isaiah’s poem on fasting. In doing so, they made a statement about how humble humans give glory to God.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaims, “You are the light of the world. . . . Let your light shine before human beings, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

isaiah1I have always loved this passage and have wanted to live it out in order to be that light which reflects God’s light. But how?

Isaiah answers that question. He introduces the lament of a devout Jew who fasts, but feels that God does not see his performance of this ritual action: “Why do we fast but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (58.3)

This is a self-serving fast which the prophet mocks. “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers.”

From Sunday’s First Reading (Isaiah 58.6-10), it is clear that it is the wealthy who need to fast, not the poor. The poor have already been deprived, and the wealthy enter into community with them through their own fasting. Fasting is not a way to puff up oneself in the eyes of God; it is about solidarity in human community.

This fast, however, involves more than not eating. It includes sharing bread with the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked and maintaining strong ties with your family.

“Is this not the fast that I choose,” asks the Lord “—to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” Fasting means tearing down the structures of injustice that we have created.

When we do this, we do not opt for a flattening of relations among people imposed by a strong government. We opt for a new way of living, one in which “your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” We opt for forgiveness of debt and an effort to bring healing to all we have harmed.

In today’s social and political climate, this may well mean protesting oppressive and exclusionary government actions. It surely means a close examination of the ways in which we are complicit in oppressive structures and striving to bring that complicity to an end. And it means positive actions of feeding, clothing, housing and building relationships.

The result is not self-aggrandizement, but the raising up of the lowly and giving glory to God. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are not acts of private piety, but a living out of the light in the midst of darkness.

When we acknowledge Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, when we say God comes first in our lives, these are acts that should resound through the public sphere. The life of faith is not some tight little thing between Jesus and me; it is the beginning of a reshaping of the common life of our society.

This is what it means when Jesus says to us, “You are the light of the world.”

[Readings: Isaiah 58.6-10; Psalm 112; 1 Corinthians 2.1-5; Matthew 5.13-16]

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