A friend of mine told me he was giving up deserts and sweets for lent. He wants to lose some weight and believes that the season of Lent will provide a period of discipline and self denial.
In the days of Isaiah the prophet, the people of Israel believed they had taken the art of fasting very seriously. Their ritual involved sack cloths and ashes but beyond that there wasn’t any significant change in their behavior.
As God’s agent, Isaiah, challenged their acts of fasting because their behavior included false humility, quarreling and even fighting. “You call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” Isaiah said.
According to Isaiah it was not a matter of going through some routine ritual, like changing our diets for a period of six weeks. God has different expectations for believers. God wants genuine repentance and genuine reform. What the Israelites needed to be doing was aiding the poor, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. “Is not this the fast that I choose: to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?”
God was disturbed by Israel’s lack of social justice. Their fasting had become a means to boast of their righteousness rather than live out a faith where one cares for one’s neighbor.
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What does this mean for the modern day church? Does it mean we should establish food pantries and build a homeless shelter? Should we open our wallets and send money to social charities? Should we sponsor free dinners like we do at Thanksgiving and Christmas?
I told you that my friend is going on a diet during Lent. What I didn’t tell you is that he also works out at the YMCA every day, all year round. That being said, our assistance to the poor would not be credible unless we were consistent with our aid all year round. Lent is not a time to “show off” or look good. Helping the oppressed, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked are ministries that need to happen in every season.
So then what does God expect? What is Isaiah really saying? He is saying that social justice issues are a given. They deserve a greater priority than ritualistic fasting. It doesn’t take much effort to cut back or reduce our consumption for a short period of time. Anyone can do that. Besides most pig-out prior to lent and party after its conclusion.
A real exercise of faith is to be able to give something away. Consuming less doesn’t have a cost to it. In fact, it has a savings. Giving, on the hand, requires sharing.
I believe that God was unhappy with the Israelites because of their unwillingness to share. The question is; Are we willing to share in our day?
Everyone knows that sharing is an expected behavior of those who believe in God. We all know the Golden Rule, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Sharing our resources is basic to our faith. I believe that Isaiah was not just talking about sharing resources. I believe he was talking about the need for us to be “liberators.”
Notice that he said that fasting also includes; “loosing the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs if the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke.” In other words, our sharing includes the sharing of ourselves.
Isaiah is speaking about forgiveness. Isaiah is encouraging inclusiveness and equality. Isaiah is talking about freedom. These embody the true meaning of fasting. Why? Because they require behavior that strives for reconciliation, empowering the powerless and permitting others to be in control of their own lives.
Reconciliation is difficult for most people, at least it is for me. Like most men, I have a tendency to let time heal my differences with other people. It doesn’t always work and my experience is that woman are better at talking about conflict and repairing hurt feelings.
Reconciliation doesn’t happen unless we make an effort to reach out to the person we need to forgive. Also, we may need to offer an apology if we are the one who is in need of forgiveness. Isaiah wanted the Israelites to spend more energy in the business of forgiveness. Ritualistic fasting had no meaning unless they were willing to strive for reconciliation.
Empowering the powerless means we give others authority. Remember when your parents gave you the keys to the family car? For the first time in your life you felt like an equal and also an adult. Until that point you were at the mercy of your parents to take you places. Now, you can get there on your own.
We hold back power in may ways. One of the changes we have made here at St. Paul’s is to include more lay people in worship. This gives folks the opportunity to lead worship. It also frees up the minister to do other tasks. To empower others means to share the load and responsibility. Others can’t learn if they don’t have the opportunity. You learn by doing. Empowering others builds community and enables others to feel a sense of belonging.
Isaiah spoke to the Israelites about their oppression of people who were different or who they believed to be inferior. They needed to “break the yoke.” They were taking advantage of their workers, their efforts being self-serving. True fasting required them to liberate those who were oppressed and give people their independence.
“Do these things,” Isaiah proclaimed, for “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.” Praise be to God.
Copyright 2004, Keith Wagner. Used by permission.