Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance, to bow one’s head like a reed, and lie upon sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? (Isaiah 58: 5) Or, “Is this not the fast I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke?” (verse 6) As we can readily see, these two consecutive verses are in contrast to one another. This use of contrasting ideas is a perfect teaching method. What are we to learn then?
This idea is echoed in the Gospels also. We see it as part of the teaching Jesus gives in his Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:16-17 we see Jesus say: “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites…” Rather, “anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting.” Jesus is adding a subtle layer to the passage in Isaiah, a layer of joyful service. In Isaiah we see that if we keep the letter of the law while at the same time allowing, maybe even promoting, injustices toward the poor and the oppressed, our “fasting” is meaningless. Jesus tells us that this is the way of the hypocrites. There is no greater condemnation in the Gospels than that which Jesus has for the hypocrites.
Fasting is not just an act for show. It is not to be done to meet some requirement of the law. It is to be a total act of the heart and of the will. If we fast in the way that God desires us to, we are to see the injustices of our day, to recognize our own involvement in those injustices, whether that be active or passive. Do we, in some way, rationalize the perpetration of an injustice by some personal argument that falsely relieves us of the guilt? Or, do we, through laziness or fear, allow an obvious injustice to be promulgated or perpetuated, by keeping quiet about it in order to “protect” ourselves from the active anger of others. If either of these are the case, our “fasting” without confronting these realities within and without, would be nothing less than hypocrisy.
What God wants from us is to fast in a way that opens our eyes to the things that go on around us, particularly things that oppress, or do harm to others. This kind of fasting, when done in accord with God’s will, will make us change our ways. It will show us the need to heal both ourselves, and those things that do damage to our neighbors. Jesus adds the final layer to this when he tells us to anoint our heads and wash our faces, and not to appear to be fasting. In other words, when we fast correctly, in accord with the will of God, we will do it joyfully, and the change of heart that would come from such fasting would release us from the things that bind us under the yoke of sin. It would also get us to release those who are bound by our unjust actions. When we have fasted in this manner, we will happily share our bread with the hungry, open our hearts and our homes to the homeless, clothe the naked, and so on.
Lord, help us to fast from those things that bind us to the world. Through our fasting, give us eyes to see and ears to hear the cries of those who suffer in our own homes, our neighborhoods, and in our streets. Help us to fast in the way that you desire us to fast, by turning away from the things that cause us to injure one another, either actively or passively. Let our fasting be in service to your will. We pray this in the name of Jesus. Amen!
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