Mechanical Religion Midrash

Mechanical Religion Midrash

Isaiah 58:1-8 with Matthew 6:1-4, 16-23

By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective

In my first book, The Midrash Key, I argue that many of Yeshua’s teachings — including sections of The Sermon on the Mount — find their origin in Deuteronomy or Leviticus.

Our Lord gathered a large crowd together for the Sermon on the Mount, so we know it was much longer than the eleven-minute summary found in the Gospel According to Matthew. Two hours would be the bare minimum, but he probably taught all day. We only have the summary the Gospel writers preserved.

Today I am suggesting that another part of The Sermon on the Mount (particularly Matthew 6:1-4, 16-23) finds its origin in Isaiah 58:1-8. I believe Jesus commented and developed themes from this text. See if you agree with me.

The theme of this section is “God detests mechanical religion.” In other words, God does not want our lip service, he want our hearts, our selves. He has no tolerance for mechanical religion; he will not be controlled or manipulated. We can obey him, but we can do him no favors. We owe him total allegiance by birth.

How we live on a daily basis is also a spiritual issue. When it comes to being a follower of   Yeshua (Jesus), we are not allowed to segment ourselves. We may be more “secular” in our jobs or among our lost family members than we would be with fellow believers, but we still must adhere to Christian ethics and conduct.

The main idea seems to be this: The type of worship or religious practice that pleases God comes from a sincere heart and is directly connected to the way we live every day.

A Contrast in TRUMPETS (Isaiah 58:1-2)

God trumpets displeasure, while hypocrites trumpet attention. Verse one (ESV) reads:

“Cry aloud; do not hold back; 
lift up your voice like a trumpet; 
declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins.”

The people were so absorbed in the hustle and bustle of their lives that they could not hear the voice of God, even though God trumpeted forth his word. The idea of blowing a shofar to quiet the crowds to listen to a warning of some sort is probably in mind. But the people could not hear.

Jesus developed this theme, and suggests the Pharisees could not hear because they were too busy in the noisy practice of advertising their own (supposed) religious dedication. Jesus confronts them:

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.

“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.” (Matt. 6:1-2)

I think the common word “trumpet” connects the texts (at least in the ears of the original audience), based upon Hillel’s rule of G’zerah Shavah in which similar expressions or words are meant to be connected in interpretation.

If the only similarity between Isaiah 58 and Matthew 6 were the trumpet idea, it would be hard to argue the case. But there are more similarities we need to examine.

While God was trumpeting his displeasure, they did not hear because they were too busy tooting their own horns. Such mechanical religion is hypocrisy. Isaiah 58:2 expresses a similar frustration:

“Yet they seek me daily 
and delight to know my ways, 
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
 and did not forsake the judgment of their God; 
they ask of me righteous judgments; 
they delight to draw near to God.”

An important figure of speech comes into play. When Jewish people give, it is called “righteousness” (tsadeq) in Hebrew. Thus, the Isaiah 58:2 passage could be considered as discussing giving, a theme Jesus developed in its context. Yeshua tells us that doing a “righteousness” (giving) for the purpose of receiving attention also neutralizes the reward for one claiming to serve God.

We will return to this theme later in our text below.

The type of worship or religious practice that pleases God comes from a sincere heart and is directly connected to the way we live every day.

A Contrast in FASTING (Isaiah 58: 3-5)

The Law commanded fasting only on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29), but left room for voluntary fasts. The practice of fasting is associated with brokenness or praying for a desperate need.

For many, this translates to skipping a meal for a day or part of a day to examine one’s heart, repent, or pray. Twinges of hunger remind the faster to pray.

The institutionalizing of fasting can be dangerous: it can lead to empty and meaningless religious ritual. The people in Isaiah’s day used fasting in an attempt to manipulate God (3):

“Why have we fasted, and you see it not? 
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” 
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, 
 and oppress all your workers.

We discover God was more concerned about their daily conduct than their religious gestures. Fasting made them grouchy, and instead of becoming godlier, they became impatient and even violent with others. They were not fasting to draw close to God: they were trying to control God through fasting, and apparently hated every moment of it. Verse 4 and 5 make this clear:

“Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
 and to hit with a wicked fist. 
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, 
 a day for a person to humble himself? 
Is it to bow down his head like a reed, 
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? 
Will you call this a fast, 
 and a day acceptable to the Lord?

The hypocrites in Yeshua’s day misused fasting to gain social prestige.

 

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. [Matthew 6:16-18]

Who are we out to impress? We cannot impress God. When others want you to play the “I’m spiritual” game, we should refuse to join in. It is fine and freeing if we are not concerned that others view us as “spiritual.”

Proverbs 20:6 reads, “Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love, but a faithful man who can find?”

Essentially, the hypocrites of Isaiah 58 and the hypocrites of Matthew 6 embraced the concept of misusing means to honor God and turning them into self-serving mechanical religion. Again, the common theme of fasting does not strongly prove that Jesus is drawing from Isaiah 58. But coupled with the theme of “trumpeting,” the argument gains a little momentum.

The type of worship or religious practice that pleases God comes from a sincere heart and is directly connected to the way we live every day.

III. A Contrast in COMPASSION (Isaiah 58:6-8)

Isaiah 58:6 urges the religious hypocrites around him to cease exploiting others:

Is not this the fast that I choose: 
to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, 
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Isaiah 58:7-8 describes the fast God demands, and it includes perennial fasting from evil. God wants us to fast from abusing or neglecting others:

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 him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, 
and your healing shall spring up speedily; 
your righteousness shall go before you; 
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

This theme is not mutually exclusive. The trumpeting theme is intertwined within Matthew 6:3-4, where Jesus admonishes us to give discreetly:

“But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

We are to give to bless others and honor God, not for personal attention. Whether we get attention is not the issue: the issue is whether we seek attention.

In my opinion, some believers end up garnering more attention by throwing a wrench in the works (book keeping, etc.) because they demand to be anonymous. In addition, others may lose the blessing of being able to say “thank you.”

The issue is motive, nothing more. We need not go out of our way to give secretly, we just need to be careful about going out of our way to give publicly. Being like everyone else (when it comes to giving) is perhaps the most discreet approach.

The Jewish ethic is also interesting. A common Jewish viewpoint is that publishing one’s name (as a contributor) motivates or shames others into giving, thus resulting in more funds for the need.

The focus in both of these ethics differs: Jesus is focusing upon our rewards in heaven; the Jewish ethic focuses upon a successful campaign, fundraiser, or benevolence project.

Yeshua’s focus is definitely the eternal in Matthew 6:19-21,

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

He also urges us to develop a good (healthy) eye in Matthew 6:22-23,

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!”

A “good eye” or “bad eye” is a Jewish idiom for “generous” or “stingy.” The ESV of Proverbs 22:9 paraphrases the “good eye” as the “bountiful eye” to help clarify the meaning:

“Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.”

The type of worship or religious practice that pleases God comes from a sincere heart and is directly connected to the way we live every day. Having a “good eye” is not something one does, it is part of who one is.

CONCLUSION

To my way of thinking, the similar themes and wording between Isaiah 58 and Matthew 6 suggest Jesus is expositing Isaiah 58 in a midrash style.

Whether the Savior recited the Isaiah passage first and then commented, we will never know in this life. Whatever our view of the relationship between these two passages, I believe we can agree that neither Jesus nor Isaiah are not tolerant of a merely mechanical religion. That is a no-brainer!