Last month, I spent some time in Arizona at the Matthew 25 Gathering. We brought together individuals and organizations from across North America who are engaged in ministry to serve ‘the least of these.’ It’s always inspiring to hear from these practitioners who actively work toward establishing justice and shalom in the world.
Here is an excerpt from a bible study on Isaiah 58 and Matthew 25 that I taught during for our:
Rooted in Him
Just north of Tucson, there’s a place called the Biosphere. The Biosphere was an experiment in a self-contained community. It was like a pre-planetary exploration thing. And they put two, three, or four people in this Biosphere and let them live, like a reality TV show.
And there are all kinds of stories of how they cheated the system and brought in pizza and things like that, but I actually want to talk about not the people, but the trees. In the Biosphere, the trees grew up quickly, but, as I recall from my college days in Arizona, they would just fall over. Why? They fell over because they had no root system. There was no wind at all in the Biosphere, so the trees never had the chance to really sink their roots and anchor themselves in the soil.
They just got too high and too top heavy and fell over. Here is the lesson: grow deep as you grow up.
When we look at the biblical narrative, we see that God’s purpose is very much like this lesson. He is not just trying to grow the extension of his people out into the world to be a blessing (Genesis 12) It isn’t just that outward reach of the branches. He is trying to get His people to settle their roots deep in his character, in who he is. In fact, I would say that the story of the people of God—from Abraham to the end of Revelation—is a story of God challenging his people to grow deep: in trust, in faith, in loyalty.
We can think of God’s commandments in the Old Testament through this lens. God is developing not just a people for him, but a people like him. He’s trying to set up behavioral norms for how we treat each other beyond just comparison and competition: you’re this and I’m that or I’m better and you’re worse.
Whether it’s the Ten Commandments, dietary restrictions, refuge cities, or Sabbath-keeping, the overarching purpose is not to burden us but to shape us. Paul talks about the law in Galatians as a guardian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. It helps us stay upright, like training wheels on a bicycle. The law isn’t punitive—it doesn’t push us away from God, but rather brings us before him.
This is what Jesus admonishes the Pharisees for—they have abused the law by turning it into a system that operates independently from God. It’s these outward rituals that give the appearance of holiness, but without any rooting in a nearness to God. The law wasn’t transforming them, it wasn’t drawing them near.
The Push that Pulls
And as we see in Isaiah 58, worship is the same way. It isn’t just this outward expression—not a reaching outward. There is a character issue, a formational issue, that God is seeking in us. Worship is meant to sink our roots into God’s character. And this passage, written 700 years before the time of Christ, anticipates Jesus’ last sermon on earth: Matthew 25.
When we walk through the passage, we feel the shock the Israelites must have felt. “Cry aloud…lift up your voice like a trumpet and declare…” What? The end of exile? Victory for Israel? Nope. “Declare to my people their transgressions.” Isaiah is clear in his indictment: ‘Sure, you only seem to seek God and follow the letter of the law, but you see it as just a lever, a tool to get the blessings you feel entitled to (vv 2-3).
There’s so much about our ministry that can turn us into this kind of person. We get ourselves so caught up in the work that we think: Here I am! I showed up! I’m doing what you told me to do! So, where are you, God? I’ve done my part. I’m here. I’m fasting. I’m working in your Name. Now it’s Your turn!”
That is when a fast goes south. It becomes a demand letter rather than a sacrifice.
And because God keeps silent, we go back to being busy. We don’t ‘stay thirsty’, as it were. We stay driven.
The work we do in the Matthew 25 arena can turn us into a community of stubbornly perseverant people. If you are doing this need-meeting, justice-seeking, mercy-laden ministry, it is because you are (by nature) perseverant. You are prone to stay at it; to stay driven…even when there is no gas in the tank.
And we so often live with the isolation known only to the driven. And that push to do the work is often the pull that draws you away from others and—sometimes—even away from God.
Consider the starving chef, so busy preparing the sauce, checking the storerooms, and getting dishes out the door that he never sits to savor a meal. Perhaps this is the case for Isaiah’s audience. They are in such a hurry to sprout up, branch out and do their righteous deeds, but they never put down roots. Perhaps this is the case for us, too. And in those moments, we are filled with doubt, feeling like we are on the dark side of the moon, wondering where God is in all our effort.
We ministers can become so consumed with producing fruit that we neglect to attend to the roots. And when the slightest wind blows, all our work comes tumbling down and we are left forlorn, angry with God, when we are the ones who neglected the roots. We spread and spread the reach of our branches and ignore that deep thirst inside us.
The Worship God Wants
But look at God’s chosen fast in verse 6.
“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? (ESV)
There’s a four-fold progression in the imagery: 1. First, loose the bonds. 2. Then undo the straps. 3. Then let the oppressed go free. 4. Then do this: take the yokes and smash them, break them, and obliterate them. It’s a vision of freedom that actively works against the ways in which we ‘pile’ the work onto ourselves.
It’s also a communal invitation. This vision of fasting isn’t about personal liberation or enlightenment; it’s an exercise in rescuing and being rescued by others. The progression starts over again: we share our bread, we share our homes, we share our clothes.
And all of this yields a four-step progressively more intimate command in vs. 7.
“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? (ESV)
First step: share your bread. Second step: bring them into the warm of your home. Third step: Cover the naked. And forth step: Never hide from another person in need.
Think what a revelation this would be in an ancient world in which life was cheap, in which ethnic wars raged. The very ones you have enslaved—set them free. Those whom you left to starve—share your bread. Why? Because they are your own flesh.
And when we deepen our sense of connection with other people, God gives us his promise:
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. (ESV)).
Remarkably, we see another four-fold promise: 1. New Light. 2. New Healing. 3. Righteousness before us. 4. A glory that has our back! That which springs up within us then goes outward. From your own restoration, you are called a “repairer of the breach” and a “restorer of streets” (v. 12).
His Flesh, Their Flesh, Our Flesh
Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 set the same pattern. What we read so often as a condemning list of obligations—more tasks loaded onto our shoulders—is actually an opportunity for glory. And once we come to see every person we meet as connected to us by the incarnation of Jesus, then we will serve out of our rootedness in his character. They are our flesh, just as Jesus took on ours. And we do this work in anticipation of our King’s judgment, which is not for us a thing to fear, but to eagerly await.
The more we convince ourselves our work is only about bearing fruit, the less we are able to build our roots, laying our foundations in the character and compassion of Jesus.
I’m humbled by the work of all who are a part of the Matthew 25 Initiative. You convict me and lead me to pray that the Lord would move in my own heart. And it is my prayer that as we are gathered here in the Sunshine State, my home state of Arizona, that we would see light break forth like the dawn and that—as we go into the world together to do the work God has given us to do—that his righteousness would go ever before us and his glory would ever be our rear guard. Amen.