2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.”
“Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Isaiah turns religion inside out. On Ash Wednesday, fasting is an imperative to feed hungry people and house homeless people. We fast not merely to deny ourselves food, but to deny ourselves.
When was the last time you did something self-consciously religious? Was it saying grace at table last evening at dinner? Or maybe you said your prayers before going to sleep last night. Or (could it be possible?) perhaps you skipped breakfast and lunch today before receiving the Lord’s Supper—as saints of old would have done.
Of course, the very word “breakfast” implies a practice largely vanished from the modern Christian west apart from monastic communities which may refrain from eating until the morning Mass is ended. But, then, there’s the common (but nonetheless religious) practice of refraining from the consumption of food until after having our blood drawn in preparation for an annual physical.
Gone are the days when most of us would willingly deprive ourselves of food in preparation for eating what the ancients termed “the medicine of immortality” the body and blood of Christ. We inhabit an era in which we willingly deprive ourselves of food in preparation for a biologically longer life—or at least the physical examination thereof. In other words, many (if not most) of us will fast to serve our own physical self-interest. But seldom will we do so in order to benefit our own souls, and we’ll almost never go without food in order to benefit someone else—whether in body or soul.
Isaiah 58 gives evidence of an ancient religious argument: do we engage religious activity (like fasting) in order to advantage ourselves in relation to God’s judgment? Or do we discipline ourselves (fasting/self-limitation) in order to benefit others, people dependent on us or less privileged than ourselves? At least it appears that, in Isaiah’s post-exilic age, the discipline of fasting was actually practiced, albeit for disingenuous reasons. The Prophet attacks religious practice undertaken for self-gain. But in our day, the argument about why fasting was practiced at all—whether for selfish or altruistic reasons—will generally fall on ears deaf to God’s voice.
No so, however, when my physician tells me I should exercise more frequently, limit myself to one helping per meal, and cut back on my consumption of carbohydrates, fats, and red meats. I listen to impressive statistics suggesting that it would be to my own advantage to discipline myself. When he tells me I should limit my consumption of alcohol to one or at most two drinks per day, he offers compelling evidence that I will live longer if I do. When he tells me to abstain from tobacco at all costs, he provides unending data demonstrating that the use of nicotine damages my physical health in more ways than I can either count or remember. In no case (whether in relation to exercise, diet, alcohol, or tobacco) does he argue that self-discipline will either benefit my fellow citizens or please God. Though I suspect that, at least in relation to the well-being of the human community, strong arguments could be made on behalf of the social benefits of dietary discipline, to say nothing of the negative social burdens stemming from my lack of discipline.
Be that as it may, current arguments encouraging self-discipline seem largely oriented toward my own benefit, and not the welfare of others. But Isaiah takes the opposite tack, and does so in the name of and with the voice of God. For Isaiah (and therefore for God) the purpose of fasting is the limitation of myself for the benefit of others—and especially for the benefit of “workers,” that is, for the benefit of those who depend on me and my self-limitation for their very lives.
But Isaiah goes further. The Prophet moves beyond the literal practice of religious fasting to fasting as a metaphor for breaking (or loosing) the bonds of injustice, for freeing laborers from their yoked bondage, and letting the captive oppressed go free. Rather than understanding the discipline of fasting as denying myself food for a specifically religious purpose, Isaiah interprets fasting as sharing our bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless poor into our homes, and clothing those who are naked. Like Luther, Isaiah interprets the command “Do not kill” in terms of “protecting our neighbor and his means of making a living;” Isaiah understands that before God there is no distinction between religious and secular acts. Fasting that I might please God while ignoring my hungry neighbor is no less sinful than eating less in order to live longer and get more life for me.
On Ash Wednesday, God’s Word declares that, no matter whether we eat or fast, we ourselves remain the essential problem. We incur God’s wrath whether we eat less to live longer or fast merely to benefit our own greedy selves. Fasting to get more of God for myself has the same ruinous effect as eating less to get more for me.
Both eating and fasting confront us with the fact that, whether we eat or are eaten, we are dust and to dust we shall return. True Lenten discipline revolves around the elemental truths that we are mortal, dependent, and selfish. Whatever serves to limit us—to hold our own greedy mortality and our neighbor’s need before our eyes—drives us to the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of Christ. The crucified savior is both the model and the goal of life. Eating and drinking him, drives us again and again to the Eucharistic fast that feeds all—in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.