Readings: Isaiah 58; 1-9a (9b-12); Psalm 112; 1 Corinthians 2:1-12; Matthew 5:13-20
“And when evil masquerades as good, the God of justice appears absent.”
(3. p. 243)
Yes, I admit it, I have watched The Wizard of Oz! It’s a bit like saying you like ABBA music, a guilty secret which we have to explain away – I only watched because the tv was on; I listen to the music ironically! However, I have watched it, and reading the readings for this week reminded me of the ending: when Toto pulls the curtain away, and the truth is revealed! The truth that what they’d been seeing was all “smoke and mirrors”, not really effectual or helpful, but a con. And in the readings today, the curtain around the pious actions and words of believers is pulled back and the honesty or not of their actions and intentions is revealed: “Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day.” The pharisees and upholders of the law, keeping to the minutiae of the words but missing the point, the deeper meaning in the laws: that the rules are supposed to enrich and liberate humanity, not be used as a means to berate and control. As Jesus says elsewhere: the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. Look beyond the curtain, beyond the words for the meaning.
So we have Isaiah speaking to the people: Evil is masquerading as good, from human choices. John Polkinghorne explains: “moral evil arises from human choices that lead to cruelty, exploitation and neglect.” So Isaiah tells the people: you’re using your fasting to oppress each other, to oppress others., not to promote freedom, to help others: “is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice ..to let the oppressed go free ….to share your bread with the hungry” – not just go without to show your worth, but share what you have with those who have nothing, who feel worthless, to show them their worth and value in God’s eyes! Then you will shine, your lamp will light the room and spread across the world. Fasting is not giving up but giving – sharing: “Father providing food for your children, your wisdom guiding teaches us share one with another, so that rejoicing, sister and brother may know your care” as we have just sung. This is the fast acceptable to God – not to make us feel good, better about ourselves, but one which makes everyone better, that shares the goodness of God to all God’s people. A good fast opens our eyes to injustice and our hearts to those who are suffering and oppressed, in need, homeless, naked, hungry: when did we see you naked, in prison, hungry Lord? The least you did for one of these my children you did for me.
Which brings us neatly onto salt, lamps and laws. The salt of the earth. A wonderful saying which describes someone dependable, reliable, someone we can turn to in need. The salt of the earth was the best, uncorrupted salt from deep in the earth, rather than the more easily contaminated sea salt. The best, with most taste, and doing the most good. And this is what we are called to be: salt that is the best, that when used, improves things, makes things better. If our fasting, our observance of rules and obligations is purely for show, to make us feel good about ourselves, is kept for us – hidden under the bushel – it is no good. It does not further God’s will, it does not further the kingdom. It doesn’t touch the lives of others and make the world a better place for all. Our salt must improve life, flavouring the lives of those around us, to show that each and everyone of God’s children is loved, worthy and valued in God’s sight. Our lamp must shine out and make the world brighter for everyone. As Brueggermann states: worship is relational and linked deeply to neighbour and action. Self-indulgent worship undermines that neighbourliness, that care for others, for our communities. Our worship, our actions cannot just be pious performances, but must build community, God’s community, God’s people. God’s gift of well-being depends on community neighbourliness, and we cannot our worship from action or neighbourliness.
So in the gospel, Jesus is asking the disciples, his followers to go beyond the law. To see their actions, their duties as enabling God to act for good in the world: actions should bring goodness, Godness to our world. Our righteousness has to exceed that of those who just perform acts. It must be done with our neighbour at its heart, with God at its heart, willingly, actively, taking Godness into the dark places of the world. Our final hymn today speaks of this: and in earth’s darkest places Let there be light. Our love, our actions must light up the world. “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.” “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 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. The Lord will guide you continually.” Our “fasting” is to bring life, to share God’s good gifts, transforming us so that we can spread like good salt into the world and shine our lamp brightly into the darknesses of the world: “Then will God’s blessing reach ev’ry people and God’s love will sustain the land”
- Brueggermann W (2010) “Journey to the Common Good” WJK
- Polkinghorne J (2010) “The Polkinghorne Rader” ed. TJ Oord, SPCK
- Stulman L, Hyun Chul Paul Kim (2010) “You Are My People” Abingdon Press
- Wells S (2016) “How Then Shall we Live?” “Inequality” Canterbury Press