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An activist reflects on Isaiah 58

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Isaiah is written during the Babylonian exile and the Assyrian siege, and so we ask: What is happening in Jerusalem? This passage shows us! Though they have the appearance of devout worship of God, the actions of the people of God gives away the fact that they are not following God. This is because of their relationship to the ‘least of these’, those who are on the bottom of society: the workers, the immigrants, the widows, the poor, the orphans.

As if…

On the outside, the people of Israel are doing things as if they loved God. I think these are the most important two words in the entire passage. It is as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness. The ‘as if’ tells us that they’re not righteous. If you miss that, you might think they were a righteous nation; which is how the passage has often been interpreted.

The reality is that the writer has told you that they don’t practice righteousness. And that word ‘righteousness’ is not holiness, it’s justice. They don’t practice justice.

The people ask: ‘God, why did we fast and worship, and you are not coming to our rescue?’ And God says: ‘Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day. You oppress all your workers. You fast only to quarrel and to fight, and you strike with a wicked fist. This is not what I’m looking for. This is not the fast I choose. What is the fast I choose? To loose the bonds of injustice. Undo the bonds of the yoke. Let the oppressed go free. You are fasting with one hand and oppressing your workers with your other hand. At the same time!’

Lisa Sharon Harper
Lisa Sharon Harper (far right) speaking at the Tearfund Just Women event in 2017

If your fasting, which is supposed to make you feel hungry for justice the way that God is hungry for justice, happens as you oppress your workers and withhold their wages, what kind of fast is that?

Lisa Sharon Harper

One of the other things the people are doing is pointing the finger. Now pointing the finger means shifting blame. It says: ‘It’s not me, he did it! It’s not my fault! I didn’t own slaves. I wasn’t here when these things happened. I’m not responsible for the policy that’s happening right now. I don’t know, what can I do?’ That’s pointing the finger. They are also speaking of evil. The actual Hebrew word is ‘aven’ which means to do something in vain. To speak of evil is to talk, talk, talk about injustice but never do justice. In other words, it’s justice as a vanity project.

Repairing the breach

So what does it take to actually bring restoration, reformation, revelation and redemption? It looks like this: Do justice, don’t just talk about it. Actually undo the yoke. Actually work towards the repair so that you will be called ‘repairers of the breach’. This is how: You repair the breach by repairing the breach. Stop talking about it! It’s easy actually. It’s not that hard. You’ve got to stop fasting with one hand, and oppressing with the other. That’s how the world gets repaired. It’s actually doing what you say you’re doing.

Springs of living water

Jesus says to the woman at the well, in John 4: “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” In our everyday lives, whenever we see acts of kindness in a dark world, that is the overflowing love. That is the living water. A well is something you drop a bucket into and you pick up the still water. Living water is like a geyser that comes up and spills out. It gives to the world. It’s not waiting to be picked up by a bucket. It’s so full that it’s overflowing.

That’s why we need to take single acts of kindness and collectivise them. Move your church to extend itself beyond itself by helping people through organised acts of compassion. That is the living water coming up and spilling out. If you move even a step further from there, you see churches, and church communities, and networks of church communities organising to fill in the gaps that public policy has left and creating the infrastructure to meet the needs of the community before people fall into poverty. Creating alternative schools, alternative hospitals, alternative policing systems, alternative justice systems so people can be restored to community rather than punished through the justice system. All of these things are ways that the living water of Jesus flows through communities of faith.


We need to take single acts of kindness and collectivise them. Move your church to extend itself beyond itself by helping people through organised acts of compassion.

Lisa Sharon Harper

Confronting darkness

There is another way, which is when churches and people of faith come together and, through the overwhelming Spirit of God inside of them, confront darkness. They confront the powers that are hell bent on crushing the image of God on earth. It is those people of faith who actually go and confront those systems, confronting the lawmakers, the crafters of the way things work, telling them: “By the power of God, you cannot rule like this in our name. In the name of Jesus, in the name of our faith, we call on you to do justice.”

That confrontation of power comes from the spring of living water. And I’ve seen that happen. I’ve been with 80 other faith leaders who stood on the front line in Charlottesville, confronting men with AK47s and AR15s who were there to claim space in America for white nationalism. And we showed another way of being together in public space – one that is characterised by love.

Finding fulfilment

We are all looking for fulfilment, but we don’t actually want to do what will make us fulfilled. This passage says that if you remove the cords of the yoke, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, offer your food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall shine in the darkness, and your gloom will be like the noonday.

Light will actually be your norm, your standard. Your light will rise in the darkness and the Lord will guide you continuously and satisfy your needs. You shall be like a well-watered garden, like a spring of water. Your ancient ruins will be rebuilt. If you do these things, then the places that war has devastated, that poverty has devastated, that your own actions of subjugation has devastated, will be rebuilt and the whole land will be beautiful.

The whole land will flourish and you will have more than when you began. You will not lose, you will regain your soul, and your land will finally flourish in a way that you never knew was possible. Amen

Lisa Sharon Harper is a world-renowned speaker and author. Her books include Left, Right and Christ and The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong can be Made Right. Lisa is the founder of Freedom Road, a team of activists that work at the intersections of faith, race, gender, economic development, and the environment toward a more just world. She has been a recent speaker at The Justice Conference Australia and Tearfund's Just Women events.

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