It is so easy to fall into hypocrisy. External, commitment-free religious practices can feel consoling, but they can also become a serious trap. In Isaiah 58, the Lord warns his people against empty worship. Their temptation was to pray, fast, and discuss religious things without backing them up with practical moral action. The prophet’s words make clear that God despises hypocritical, insincere religion.
The Hypocrisy Trap
Hypocrisy is a sin like any other. It is tempting because it is easy. It is easier to say a couple prayers than it is to write a check. It is easier to skip a meal than to reach out and feed the truly hungry. The ancient Israelites were tempted in the same ways that we are. Earlier in Isaiah 58, they ask the Lord, “Why do we fast, but you do not see it?” (58:3 NABRE). He responds that they might fast, but when they fast they oppress their workers and fight with each other (58:4). The Lord announces that he does not want people to skip meals while sinning, but he wants his people to humble themselves, repent of sin, “to bow one’s head like a reed, and lie upon sackcloth and ashes” (58:5 NABRE). The point is that fasting, or any religious devotion, should promote a change of heart that leads to humility and righteous action. Devotional practices cannot be done for their own sake. Rather, they ought to change us from the inside out.
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Pope Francis has given us a great example of “putting your money where your mouth is” in this regard. He appointed Archbishop Krajewski as Papal Almoner, to be his hands and feet, to go out and give alms to the poor in a very personal way. Apparently, Pope Francis told him, “You can sell your desk.” What a great image for us! It is tempting to confine ourselves to our corner of the universe, our daily commitments, and never reach out beyond our immediate sphere to help someone in need. We can even confine ourselves to prayerful, devotional practices and not allow God to break us out of our comfort zone.
What Can We Do?
While not all of us can literally “sell our desks,” we can embrace a lifestyle of giving and reaching out, rather than turn in on ourselves. We can be, as it were, Christ’s hands and feet: giving to the poor, reaching out to the homeless and troubled. Our prayer life ought to support a life of service, not replace it. Spiritual growth should bear fruit in reaching out to others. Often the difficulty lies in the boundaries of our “comfort zone.” We might feel too broken, sinful, or just plain busy to reach out to others. Yet Jesus calls us to reach out to the least of the brothers with very strong language (see Matt 25:31-46). He gives us grace, in the midst of all our limitations and weaknesses, to reach out—whether to volunteer, to write a check, to lend a helping hand to someone less fortunate than ourselves. We can be open to the promptings of grace and reach out in small—and sometimes big—ways.
What Does God Promise?
In Isaiah 58, the Lord calls the Israelites to shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, give bread to the hungry, and get rid of malicious falsehoods. He promises his people that if they do these things, they will receive healing, vindication, and light. He tells them “your light will break forth like the dawn.” These are no empty words, but promises of God’s intervention when our religious commitment to him is no empty worship. He wants us to act like he would act, to give like he would give. His blessings then fall on those who are faithful to him—and no, it is not a math equation which offers a percentage return on investment. It is far better than that. Covenantal fidelity to the Lord leads to blessing and life. When we satisfy the physical needs of the poor, the Lord reaches out to bless us.
Destination: Sabbath Rest
Toward the end of Isaiah 58, the Lord enjoins obedience to the Sabbath rest (58:13). This might seem odd since the Sabbath is an explicitly religious practice, not an outreach. But what he is showing us through Isaiah is that faithfulness to the Lord manifests itself in both spiritual practices and in service to the poor. These two things in themselves though don’t reveal the destination: the Sabbath rest of the Lord. While the Sabbath rest reminds us of creation and the blessing that it is, it also points forward to our end: resting in the Lord. The “R.I.P.” on a tombstone indicates, “(May he/she) rest in peace” (or requiescat in pace). That “rest” is the eternal Sabbath rest the Lord offers to us in his Son. All the activities we do that demonstrate our faithfulness to the Lord find their fulfillment in his presence, in the rest that he invites us to enter into in heaven.
Editor’s Note: Unpacking the Old Testament is a series by CatholicBibleStudent.com‘s Dr. Mark Giszczak. Dr. Giszczak is here to help us all come to a richer understanding of what can otherwise be a very daunting collection of books, the Old Testament. Look for his column every Friday from Catholic Exchange.