Ash Wednesday: The Fast That I Choose

Have you decided what to fast from this Lent?

Fasting is a good thing; it’s a discipline worth learning and developing. I have always valued the 40-day season of Lent as a time to fast from something significant and to deepen my own personal prayer and devotional time. In return, I have learned a lot about myself and my God.

However, this year things seem different. I keep running up against the words of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially Isaiah. In one of the most striking and biting passages in all of Scripture, the prophet rails against the fasting practices of the Israelites, saying:

Announce to my people their rebellion,
   to the house of Jacob their sins. 
Yet day after day they seek me
   and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
   and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
   they delight to draw near to God. 

‘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. 
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
   and to strike with a wicked fist.

Such fasting as you do today
   will not make your voice heard on high. 
Is such the fast that I choose,
   a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
   and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
   a day acceptable to the Lord? 

Is not this the fast that I choose:
   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs 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 them,
   and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
   and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
   the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard. 
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
   you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

It should be clear what the prophet is upset about. He sees that his fellow citizens are quite “spiritual.” They do all the required ritual acts of worship; they offer their sacrifices, pray their prayers, and fast when they are supposed to fast. It even appears as if the people honestly love their God; they want to know what God thinks; they “seek after” him.

However, their everyday lives are devoid of any concern for their neighbors. They are preoccupied with their own matters; they don’t think about others. They don’t believe that their social conduct has anything to do with their religious standing.

This is the great lie which has swallowed people of faith over the centuries. The great lie says that being a religious person is merely a spiritual matter, a condition of one’s interior, internal heart only, a matter of one’s private relationship with God. This lie has been swallowed by faithful churchgoers and spiritual-but-not-religious folk alike. The implication is that all that matters is what happens in the spiritual realm.

Isaiah explodes that lie by proclaiming that the way one treats the neighbor is just as, if not more, important to the religious life. You cannot compartmentalize your life into religious and secular compartments. There is no “church” life and “work” life, no difference between what God expects on Sunday and what God expects on Friday. In fact, the way you interact with others is part of your worship to God.

That’s why Isaiah quotes God as saying, “I would prefer you not bother with fasting, because it’s not what I want.”

God wants something different. God wants the Israelites to commit themselves to justice. Until there is a change in attitude, in orientation, in basic human dignity, the traditional spiritual disciplines will do no good.

Without sounding too dramatic, I would like to suggest that we American Christians need to hear Isaiah’s word today. We should stop fooling around with fasting from Dr. Pepper and cafe lattes, and take on the serious work of justice. If we will pay attention long enough, we will notice that injustice reigns throughout every corner of the globe. Even a cursory reading of history reveals that injustice is only made right by sustained, lengthy, collective action by people who are entirely convinced that all humans deserve basic rights, respect, and dignity.

I have a feeling that if we were to hear God speak to us clearly today, we might hear the exact same words which Isaiah uttered, words of condemnation and judgment.

So join with me this Lent in a different kind of fast, a fast of God’s own choosing. Each morning, I will post a Scripture reading, a reflection on the reading, a prayer to pray, and a justice challenge. I would like you to consider doing something for justice each day in Lent, instead of giving something up. Feel free to use the comments section to let me know how your justice challenge went!

May our Lent truly be a fast of God’s own choosing!

PRAYER: God, we confess that our prayer and fasting has been hollow and empty in the past. We have not loved our neighbors, we have ignored the cries of those who suffer injustice, and we have been mindless of the suffering in our own communities. This season of Lent, we dedicate ourselves to the work of justice in our world. May your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

JUSTICE CHALLENGE: Often the call to justice involves changing unjust laws. Fortunately, our political system allows our voices to be heard by our elected officials. Do you know who your elected officials are? On this first day of Lent, make a point to identify your state senator and representative, and your two national senators and House Representative. Make a note somewhere of their phone numbers. You will probably need them in the next forty days!