“Pour Out Your Soul”Dr. Lawrence Webb Isaiah 58:1-9a Year A - Fifth Sunday After the Epiphany
In the Blue Laws era of the 1960s, state laws in South Carolina tried to define certain businesses that should and should not be open on Sundays, but state officials gave some leeway for local governing bodies to enact their own laws.
For example, the city of Anderson and Anderson County had some different laws. One involved movie theatres Those within the city limits could not open on Sundays, but those outside the city could and did run their movies. Other businesses considered strictly for entertainment faced similar restrictions. Bowling alleys were outside the city limits, so they could be available to weekend bowlers.
You readily recognize these different laws could get pretty tricky, as the rule makers decided which businesses should and should not open on Sunday. A young, single minister worked with young people in the church and community, ate many meals in restaurants, including Sundays. Several churches had a youth bowling league on Saturday mornings.
Many Sunday afternoons, the young minister had carloads of teens in his car. One Sunday afternoon, as they left a hamburger place, a boy on the bowling team, asked, “What would be wrong with our going bowling today?” The minister said, “I can’t explain much difference between going to a hamburger place and a place to bowl. But I prefer not bowl on Sunday.” That answer may not have satisfied the kids in the car, but nobody argued the point.
The next day, at lunch with some other preachers, the young minister told this story, including the statement about having trouble explaining why he would eat out but not bowl on Sunday. One minister at the lunch, who often ate Sunday dinner out and also was a bowler, declared emphatically, “There’s a big difference. I don’t have to bowl, but I have to eat!” Yes, but did he have to eat out? Bottom line, proper observance of the Lord’s Day often is in the proverbial eye of the beholder.
With rules of any kind, sometimes we forget why we have those rules. So, the main point becomes enforcement of the rule, rather than the purpose behind the rule. Much of the furor over Blue Laws fell into that category. The original point of the Sabbath was to provide a time of rest for the work animals as well as for people. Genesis 2:2 says God took a day off after creating the world.
Seminary professor, Dr. Wayne Oates, recognized our constant complex of activities and lack of rest. So, he suggested those with flexible work schedules should divide their waking hours into three parts: morning, afternoon, and evening. Then work in what he called “the best two out of three.” If you are busy both morning and afternoon, don’t do anything stressful in the evening. Or, if you have something you must do at night, rest either in the morning or afternoon — “the best two out of three” — if your work schedule permits.
Isaiah, chapter 58, looks at two different acts of piety: fasting and Sabbath. We will come back to the Sabbath, but we need to stop for a while with fasting. The prophet expands and deepens the meaning for both of these acts far beyond anything that comes to mind about fasting or Sabbath observance. Far, far beyond.
Both these are intended to draw people closer to God, but the prophet says it’s not working. We go through the motions, but our hearts are not there. These have become external performances. Regarding fasting, he says, “Look, you serve your own interests on your fast days” (v. 3). He addresses people who hire workers: You “oppress your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.” Then Isaiah says plainly, “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.” Brian Jones says, “this sort of self-interested worship amounts to hugging God and hoping for a cookie.” (Working Preacher).
Isaiah describes authentic fasting in the form of questions — questions that have nothing to do with skipping a meal. He describes acts of mercy toward people in need. “Fasting was evidently a common practice at the time, but only among those with enough food. The poor fast by necessity. The fast God ‘chooses’ is, ironically, to provide food for the hungry and thereby to enable them to break their enforced fast” (Jones).
The prophet’s questions include these:
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loosen the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
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 them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Jesus echoes this in Matthew 25 when He describes those who will blessed forever with the Father: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” He adds, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
The prophet also speaks of removing the yoke, which symbolizes unburdening the oxen from their hard work in the field and dragging heavy loads. Also, he refers to accusations against the overworked and underpaid who have little resources or means of protecting themselves. He refers to the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil.
An authority figure may point an accusing finger at a laborer. The speaker of evil speaks falsely, slandering the good name of a defenseless person.
First Kings (chapter 21) gives a horrible example of Queen Jezebel convincing her husband, King Ahab, to deprive a common citizen named Naboth of his ancestral land. When Naboth refuses to sell or trade his family property, Jezebel declares a fast and hires false witnesses to testify that Naboth has cursed God and the king. So, they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death.
Again, Isaiah says, such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.
Rather, he describes deeds of love and mercy as the true fast, sharing bread with the hungry, bringing homeless poor people to your home, and covering the naked with clothes.
Then we hear the results: Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly . . . Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am… then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually,
Brian Jones says, “It’s easy too fast when you know your cupboards are full; the challenge is to empty your cupboards to meet the needs of others and then trust God to “satisfy your needs in parched places.” I think Isaiah would say, with fasting that finds expression in meeting the basic life needs of someone else, you are willing to let your own gut wait.
REMEMBER THE SABBATH DAY
We began with the Sabbath Day as a Jewish institution, then looked at fasting. Both these practices are intended to draw people closer to God. Now we come back for a fuller examination of Sabbath — what it can mean in our spiritual lives.
The fourth of the Ten Commandments calls for keeping the Sabbath Day holy. All work should be excluded. The Commandment is directed to the man as head of the household, but it is to apply to every living, breathing organism under his supervision:
For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.
If you were listening closely, you may have noticed one person in the household was left out of the lineup. No mention of the man’s wife. After all, in ancient Jewish thought, she was under his authority, so mention of her probably seemed redundant
We have two different listings of the Ten Commandments, one in Exodus, chapter 20, the other in Deuteronomy 5. The wording of the Commandment itself is virtually identical in both places, but we have two different explanations for why we are instructed to observe a day of rest every seven days.
We probably are more familiar with the Exodus explanation: God created the world and everything in it in six days; therefore, we should follow the Creator’s example.
Deuteronomy has a different justification: Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore, the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
In both renderings, we see a threefold significance:
- We recognize God, as Creator in the Exodus account and as Deliverer from Egypt in Deuteronomy.
- We honor the dignity and worth of all people and also of work animals by providing time each week for rest and refreshment.
- We have opportunity to sustain our own bodies and spirits through relaxation and worship.
But how often we fail to fulfill one or two or all three of these provisions as we hurry through the day of rest. We lurch into work or sports or travel or family visits, leaving little time to rest our bodies and minds or find time for God.
Some songs reflect the need for rest and refreshment. The popular African-American composer and conductor Duke Ellington in the World War Two era wrote such a song. It’s called “Come Sunday” (https://www.lyrics.com/lyric/6865434/Mahalia+Jackson/Come+Sunday):
Lord, dear Lord I’ve loved, God almighty,
God of love, please look down and see my people through.
I believe that sun and moon up in the sky.
When the day is gray,
I know it, clouds passing by.
He’ll give peace and comfort
To every troubled mind.
Come Sunday, oh come Sunday.
That’s the day.
Often, we feel weary,
But he knows our every care.
Go to him in secret:
He will hear your every prayer.
Lilies on the valley,
They neither toll nor spin.
And flowers bloom in spring time.
Up from dawn till sunset,
Man work hard all the day.
Come Sunday, oh come Sunday.
That’s the day.
With any law or rule, the enforcers may find ways to enlarge it. Sabbath rules came to include forbidding any preparation or carrying of food, any sort of farm work in their largely agricultural society, and even how far you could walk without violating the Sabbath. This rule for walking came to be known as a Sabbath Day’s Journey.
The first chapter of the New Testament book of Acts (1:12) mentions this distance: After Jesus ascended to heaven from Mount Olivet, His followers traveled a Sabbath Day’s Journey back to Jerusalem. It’s a bit difficult to determine the exact distance of that journey, but it seems to have been less than half a mile, maybe no more than two thousand feet.
But just as some enforcers try to enforce limits to a law or rule, others look for ways to get around it. That held true with the Sabbath Day’s Journey. As the Sabbath draws near on Friday at sunset, if I need to go a longer distance, I can go that two thousand feet and leave some food. Because I usually keep my food at home, I can declare that food location part of my home. Also, I can go even beyond that if I declare the trunk of a tree still farther away to be my home and thus expand my acceptable distance for Sabbath travel. If that sounds nit-picky, that’s because it IS nit-picky.
As you read through the Gospels, you discover Jesus is not at all nit-picky with Sabbath observance, when it comes to helpful acts.
Mark 2 tells of Jesus and His disciples going through the fields — which, in itself violates the Sabbath Day’s Journey rule. They are hungry, so they pluck heads of grain. Again, pulling the grain off the stalk constitutes a violation. His perennial critics, the Pharisees, point out what He and the disciples are doing: “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?”
Because Jesus knows they like to point to ancient authorities, including the Jewish Scriptures, He points them to David, their most revered king: When he and his companions were hungry, they entered space reserved for the high priest and ate the bread of the Presence, which was not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.
Then Jesus makes a statement that seems to have been His only rule for Sabbath observance: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
So, the day of rest is a means toward an end, not an end in itself. We don’t observe rules for the sake of observing rules. We follow rules that are for benefit of others or for ourselves. Our Lord’s most conspicuous violations of Sabbath rules involve healing on the Sabbath. Time and time again, the nitpickers go after Jesus for making sick people well on the Sabbath. A most horrible example of this attitude shows up Luke, chapter 13:
One Sabbath, as He teaches in a synagogue, a crippled woman comes in. For eighteen years, she has been stooped so badly, she cannot stand straight. He stops teaching and calls her over. He tells her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When He lays His hands on her, immediately she stands up straight and begins praising God. All that is wonderful, but listen to the leader of the synagogue:
“There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” That sounds incredible. The religious leader cares more about rules than about making a sick woman well. Jesus speaks to the synagogue leader and others who also seem offended:
“You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
In other words, isn’t this lady worth at least as much as a farm animal you take time to feed and give water, even on this day you claim to honor? “When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”
A word in our Isaiah passage brings all this into focus, another example of how the words from an ancient prophet find fulfillment in the teachings of Jesus. In our Isaiah passage, we’ve seen how privileged Israelites point fingers and speak evil, laying a heavy burden on the rest of their nation. Let me read verses 9-10 again:
“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 you shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like noonday.”
Any time you translate from one language to another, you can easily mis-translate. In the NRSV the translation of a key word does not bring out the true depth of that word. When it says, if you offer your food to the hungry, the real meaning is if you pour out your soul for the hungry. (Shauna Hannan, Working Preacher).
Jim Vitale points out the key word is nephesh, N-E-P-H-E-S-H, which literally means throat, “more specifically, the jugular area. It is the part of your body where so much blood courses with so little protection. Nephesh, then . . . is your lifeblood; nephesh is the part of your body you seek to protect most; nephesh is the full summation of your spiritual, mental, emotional, social, economic, political and, most of all, physical existence.”
Pastor Vitale says, “to pour out your nephesh is something far more radical, vulnerable, and dangerous” than working in a food bank on the weekend. “It means risking and giving over our whole lives to the hungry and afflicted. . . to pour out your nephesh is to give everything: money, resources, lifestyle, prayer, companionship, physical presence— in short, the fullest extent of your time and ability. . . .
“But there’s a problem. If we pour out our nephesh for our neighbors, what life will we have left for ourselves? For we cannot cling to our life and let go of it at the same time… The key, Isaiah says, is that God pours new life into us through Sabbath…We pour out our nephesh to our neighbors by feeding, clothing, comforting, and giving our whole selves to them. And we pour out our nephesh to our God when we stop our business, stop our worrying, stop our complaining, stop our exploiting, and restfully open ourselves up to God. And in the midst of that openness, we find that God pours back into us that very nephesh, the warm lifeblood that we ourselves poured out to our neighbors and our God.”
All that nephesh stuff — pouring out our souls — is a tall order. It would be simpler just to offer food to a hungry neighbor. And most of us will settle for that and think we’ve done something wonderful. And it is wonderful if we do even that much. But Isaiah 58 tells us there’s more — ever so much more.
About the writer:
Lawrence Webb is a native of Sweetwater, Texas. With degrees from Hardin-Simmons University, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the University of South Carolina, he has served as pastor, writer-editor, and professor at Anderson University.
His books include The Art of Advent; Reflections for Thanksgiving, Advent, and Christmas; Christmas Memories from Seven to Seventy; Once for a Shining Hour; Revelation, a Book of Hope; Hardin-Simmons, Hail to Thee; Songs That Sing to Me; Life Lessons from Stories, Songs, Poems, and Plays. He and his wife Pansy live in Anderson, South Carolina.
Scripture and Music:
Isaiah 58:1-9a, 9b-12.
1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
Rejoice, the Lord is King
Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah
Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
The God of Abraham Praise
I Stand Amazed in the Presence
Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken
Christ, Upon the Mountain Peak
Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus
At the Name of Jesus, Every Knee Shall Bow
How Beautiful Upon the Mountains (John Carter)
Every Time I Feel the Spirit
Christ Upon the Mountain Peak (John Bertalot)
This Is My Beloved Son (Knut Nystedt)
At the Name of Jesus (Berry)
Great Is the Lord
Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus
Jesus, Name Above All Names
Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies (Petker)