A Fast Day in Two Dimensions
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
The GOD of glory will secure your passage.
Then when you pray, GOD will answer.
You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’” —Isaiah 58:6-9 (The Message)
Isaiah apparently had some pretty frustrated neighbors on his hands. After all they’d been through—the fall of Jerusalem, exile and slavery, forty years in the wilderness, and finally, a return home—they had rightly made the practice of fasting a regular part of their worship experience. They seem to have recognized—at least in the beginning—that expressions of sorrow and repentance were appropriate responses to what they interpreted as God’s judgment on their people.
But somewhere along the line, their pride in the discomfort of fasting—the self-denial around which the ritual was centered—must have become so much a focal point of their efforts to prove their devotion to God that they lost sight of those things that God finds most pleasing. “Why in the world are we doing this—why are we enduring this unpleasantness—when God doesn’t even seem to be noticing? We’re trying so hard to please God—to learn about God and to do what God wants—but it seems God’s forgotten us. We keep praying, but it’s as if no one is there.”
Isaiah, who has been called to tell it like it is to God’s people, breaks it down for them in pretty simple terms. Holding nothing back, he tells God’s people “what’s wrong with their lives” and “faces [God’s] family Jacob with their sins.” (58:1) “They’re busy, busy, busy at worship, and love studying all about [God]. To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people—law-abiding, God-honoring. They ask [God], ‘What’s the right thing to do?’ and love having [God] on their side.” (58:2) But from the perspective of the Israelites, God hasn’t noticed a bit of it, and perhaps worse, hasn’t acknowledged their efforts through answered prayers. Simply put, they feel that God is not holding up God’s end of the bargain.
And then the hammer comes down. As it turns out, all the devotion to God they’ve been proudly demonstrating through their repentance, self-denial and their God-focused worship just isn’t enough. Theirs has been a one dimensional relationship with their Creator—what one commentator has referred to as “a purely formal attitude, a religious quid pro quo.” And through the prophet, God lets them know that that just won’t cut it.
As always, however, God doesn’t leave God’s people hanging… God tells them (and us) what kind of fast day—what kinds of expressions of repentance for our sins—God is really after. And God goes on to assure them that if they adopt the kind of fast that God wants to see, the result will be light for their dark times, and transformed lives to boot.
In this season of Lent—and perhaps in this particular season of Lent especially—it occurs to me that an intentional effort to add another dimension to our efforts to please and honor God is in order. At a time when our nation, and indeed much of the world, has been thrown into turmoil and the cultivation of fear seems to have become the primary currency of power, opportunities to fast in the way that God is interested in seeing us fast abound. On their surface, God’s words concerning what God is interested in seeing us do may seem fairly straightforward; but putting those words in action, well, that’s where God’s idea of a new fast day gets much more difficult.
At some point in our past, it became “the thing” to observe the Lenten season through the pursuit of small personal sacrifices and displays of contrition—small efforts at self-denial. We give up chocolate, or meat, or television for a few weeks. We avoid eating completely for a day out of each week. We commit to small, personal spiritual disciplines such as daily prayer or bible study. And there is certainly nothing wrong with any of these efforts toward centering ourselves and contemplating our propensity for failing to live as we know we should.
As I see it, however, the passage from Isaiah seems to suggest that God is interested in seeing us put at least as much emphasis on abandoning those habits we serve at the expense of God’s other children—ignoring hunger, sanctioning injustice, and demonizing the poor, the homeless, and the refugee—as we do on those public and private displays of humility and contrition. Our responsibilities to God are, like the cross on which God’s son demonstrated the depth of God’s love, two-dimensional.
Breaking the chains of injustice, banishing exploitation in the workplace, and liberating those who are oppressed from the conditions that make them oppressed is hard work; it’s sacrificial, Self-denying work. It is an exercise in self-discipline that, pursued rigorously, may very well put us at odds with those in positions of power. It is an exercise in self-discipline that, pursued faithfully, may result in far more physical discomfort or inconvenience than skipping a meal or setting aside an hour a day for bible study ever would.
We will traverse this Lenten season, it seems, against a backdrop of political chaos and an assault on truth. As we mourn and repent of our own sinfulness, we will do so in the midst of brothers and sisters whose poverty, affliction, oppression, homelessness, and hunger is either ignored or used by those in seats of power as bargaining chips as they seek to acquire more power or to consolidate the power they possess.
Let then our Lenten fast include an additional dimension—the dimension of the outstretched arms of Christ. Let us share our food with the hungry, strengthening them for productive lives. Let us gather in the homeless and the refugee, providing them sanctuary from fear. Let us defend those who are demonized and oppressed, that they may know dignity and affirmation. Let us clothe the ill-clad, that they may be warmed. Let us advocate for the powerless and the afflicted, that they may feel strength and restored health. This is the kind of fast day that God is after. And when we turn to God for help in this endeavor, God will answer “Here I am.”