“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” . . . Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose 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?
Isaiah 58, selected verses
In this passage from Isaiah, the people of Judah are angry. They feel as though God is not upholding God’s part of the bargain, the covenant that God established with Moses. In Exodus 6:7, God speaks, saying, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” This covenant forms the basis for Israel’s acceptance of the Ten Commandments and its abandoning other gods. In exchange for this loyalty, Israel returns successfully to the Promised Land, becomes prosperous, and presumes divine protection.
With the dividing of the kingdom of God into northern and southern halves and the advancing oppression of the Assyrians, Judah feels their loyalty to God has not been adequately rewarded. To underscore this point, Judah reminds God in the above text, “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” These people of God complain that they have humbled themselves in submissive worship and embodied that faithfulness through ritual fasting, yet Assyria’s momentum and Judah’s inhalation seem inexorable.
However, God, through Isaiah, draws a different conclusion: God’s sees Judah’s fasting but glimpses it shallowness; God knows they worship but perceives their sinfulness.
While close, Judah’s efforts to worship and embody their faith have missed the mark.
In fact, the Hebrew word—chattah (and the later Greek translation—hamartia)—in this biblical text to describe the house of Judah’s failure by Isaiah is often translated as “sin.” Yet, the word literally means “to miss the mark.”
In Hebrew, three words are typically translated into English as “sin.” Each, however, means something significantly different. Avon, translated as “sin,” means “iniquity,” “perversity,” or “depravity”. Pesha, translated as “sin,” means “transgression,” “rebellion,” or “revolt.” Chattah, the most common word appearing in the Hebrew scriptures that is translated as “sin” means “to miss the mark.” Each of these words covers a different kind of human failure, and it is this last one—chattah—that occurs, here, in our passage. So, Isaiah specifically accuses Judah of missing the mark in their effort to fulfill their part of the divine covenant.
So, how has Judah sinned or missed the mark?
To answer this, it might prove useful first to understand what it means to say that someone or some group sins by missing the mark.
Within scripture, there is no comprehensive, systematic presentation of what sin is. Rather, the theological doctrine of sin emerges from a constellation of images, stories, and statements, creating a general view of what it means to say “sin.” Stated positively, our understanding of sin starts not with a human failure but with a divine gift. In the first creation story, humanity is fashioned in God’s image, i.e., the imago dei. Then, the classic story of the “fall” intervenes. There, humanity oversteps its authority by assuming God’s place as the arbiter of good and evil. Both of these formative stories, while not necessarily meant to recall historic events, nevertheless offer significant theological insight. In other words, they are not meant to tell us how things got the way they are but are a reflection on how things really are. Theologians call these kinds of stories etiological.
On the one hand, the imago dei is the notion of humanity’s being created in God’s image that sets us up not for a “fall” but for a “high” destiny. We are positioned as children of God, not God but like God in love, freedom, and community. On the other hand, the story of the fall captures a propensity just to miss the mark when given the option between two similar “trees.” Sin, in this way, seems to be about both, positively, what we might become and, negatively, what we nearly get right.
The broadest concept of sin in the Hebrew scriptures—chattah—captures this dual notion by borrowing a term from archery. An archer may faithfully and earnestly attempt to aim at a target but still miss the mark. In so doing, the archer commits chattah.
In the text from Isaiah above, Judah worshiped and fasted but for the wrong reasons, embodying the wrong outcomes. Judah’s wrong reason is that they engage in faithful practices but forsake God’s righteous ordinances, i.e., they do not care for the poor or the oppressed. That is, they do not connect faith to life: “Yet day after day [Judah] seek[s] me [i.e., God] and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God . . . .”
Judah sees no connect between the substance of their faith practices and the living of their lives. Specifically, this is seen in Judah’s practice of fasting, a fasting that does not but should lead to their feeding the hungry: “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. . . . 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?”
Explicitly seen in this concern for fasting, Isaiah is reminding Judah that observing God’s ordinances should directly lead to righteous behavior. If not, the behavior is shallow; it is only two-dimensional. While on the surface, it looks right. However, it lacks the depth of true faith. Ultimately, Judah’s fasting misses the mark because regulating your eating in faith should lead to feeding those who need to eat. This failure by Judah is the very essence of “original sin.”
Original sin is for some a theological doctrine designed to offer a genetic explanation for our tendency for failure. However, I do not find such ontological gymnastics helpful. Rather, as I see it, original sin is but a way to describe the two-fold character of our propensity to miss the mark.
Historically, Christian theology, according to theologian Delwin Brown, classified sin into two categories: pride and sensuality. Classically, the word “pride” was used in a way that we tend not to use it today. This classic notion of pride, as Brown describes it, “is excessive self-regard, not adhering to appropriate limits, taking for oneself more than that to which one is entitled.” Today, we might use the word “arrogance” instead. In other words and to return to the story of the fall, pride is trying to act more like the Creator than one of the creations.
Conversely, sensuality is not a disparaging of our physicality but a way of articulating an excessive focus on our physical needs and wants. In the classical sense, sensuality was associated with the lower self, our physical being. Notwithstanding some of the potential problems with such a dualistic division of the self, placing this notion in a classical context proves helpful because it explains how sensuality is but sin to another extreme. Therefore, if pride is our trying to be more than human, then sensuality describes our being less than human, failing to embrace our responsibilities and rise above our mere passions. In summary, Brown says “sin is disproportionate love, love that is out of balance—excessive or deficient love.” By saying that sin has a two-fold character, we are saying that the sin of pride is loving ourselves too much and the sin of sensuality is not loving ourselves enough. Both miss the mark!
Such excessive or deficient love as a descriptor of sin helps explain a lot.
For Judah, in this passage from Isaiah, they sinned because they did not love their neighbors who were poor, hungry, and disadvantaged. Rather, they loved their proximity to God but not the added responsibility of that position. For some, love in the excess leads to a selfish existence, being wrapped up in oneself, oblivious of the needs of the world and the love of our God all around us. For others, love in deficit leads not just to a selfless life but to a self-obliterating existence, allowing the self to dissolve and become of no value to oneself or others.
I could go on and on, but I think the point is clear. Sin and the doctrine of sin is not so much about violating clearly delineated rules and ways of living. To the contrary, recognizing sin can be as difficult as knowing true love. Nevertheless, we are compelled to search ourselves, our friends, our families, and our communities and to identify places where love has been misdirected, misused, or is simply missing. By learning to love well, our tendency “to miss the mark” on a variety of “sins” will diminish. Moreover, in our efforts to avoid missing the mark, to avoid sin, our efforts should focus on how we might love well. Stated positively, we should be less concerned with “targeting” what is wrong than “aiming” for what is right.
As it turns out, a conversation about sin—something seemingly unavoidably negative in nature—is really a conversation about love—something inherently positive in nature. Love is the key. In this week that finds us racing towards Valentine’s Day and all of the saccharine sweetness that has come to define the day, may our attention not rest solely on the love surrounding candy hearts and red roses but upon a love that leads to a life more reflective of the holy and less troubled with being just wholesome, remembering that “. . . these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Love well and see you along the way.