One of the readings for today, Ash Wednesday, is from Isaiah 58. It’s kind of embarrassing, really, what this passage says. It’s awkward. It says that religious people like to fast and perform religious rites, and in their fasting and rites, say to God, “Hey, look how great we are! Look how much we are doing for you!” (Is. 58:3).
And then God says, “Even when you fast, you are still just living for yourself, seeking your own pleasure and oppressing the poor.” (Is. 58:3). So you can give up chocolate, or beer, or TV, but it doesn’t make things right.
The passage goes on to say: “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? 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 you shall call, and the Lord will answer… if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted?” (Is. 58: 6-7, 10).
It seems like the Bible is saying that it would be better for us to bring some homeless people into our house than to give up chocolate for a few weeks. But that’s a little crazy, right? To think that suffering people are our own flesh and blood, that we are supposed to pour ourselves out for the hungry? And somehow fix oppression, and save people from wickedness? How, exactly, are we going to accomplish this?
To be honest, I don’t know what to do with this passage, but I think it’s important to talk about what it means for Christian community. I think it’s also significant that Isaiah of breaking yokes and lifting burdens. Because of course Jesus comes along later and says that if we come to him, he will give us rest, that his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). He has ultimately released us from the bonds of wickedness and the yoke of oppression. He has fed and clothed us, taken us into his home and called us his own flesh.
And somehow, in the midst of our Lenten practices as we fast or don’t fast or whatever we do, I hope that we can move a little more toward the rest that Jesus promises for our souls, a rest that involves us also pouring out our lives for the poor, somehow.
Some ideas for A Different Kind of Fasting for Lent
* Fast from going out to eat and use the money to help establish sustainable food sources in impoverished communities
* Fast from buying new clothes and use the money to provide food, water, and medical care for a child
* Consider being a foster parent— the foster care system pays for day care, so you can do it even if you have a job