Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is this not 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 to bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Today millions of Christians will begin the Lenten season being marked with the words of the ancient curse: “From ashes you came, to ashes you will return.” It is a stark reminder of the mortality each member of the human race knows all too well. To participate in Lent, modern day Christians typically give up anything from red meat on Fridays to coffee in the morning (not recommended on either count!). Isaiah’s ancient words, however, seem to be calling for more than the “no” of abstention. Isaiah is calling the hearer to the “yes” of justice.
Last night President Trump surprised many Americans by delivering a joint address to congress that, at least on its surface, was a call to unity.
Absent the many oft-rambling insulting tone familiar to the president’s early speeches, Mr. Trump painted with a broad brush his agenda for congress in the coming year.
Nothing, from the military’s expansion to the scapegoating of immigrants on topics ranging from job loss to violent crimes to terrorism came as a surprise. In short, the fact that the president spoke for an hour, sounded coherent and refrained from explicitly insulting anybody was far more surprising than the fact that he is adamant that tax payer dollars go to building a physical wall.
These are troubling times.
The religious machine in Isaiah’s day rolled right along, even if the great religious men of the day were prone to look the other way as injustices multiplied. During these fasts and holy days, everybody took time away from the normal routine except for the servants. These were foreigners and, despite the many commands to the contrary from the time of Moses and beyond, they were treated as outsiders. The most vulnerable in the society were being taken advantage of so that the privileged could worship in peace.
But piety without doing justice was never the aim of sacred life. The prophet calls the people back to simply doing good to others. The intention of fasting is to give of your food to the hungry. You place limits on your own appetites so that others – the “least of these” that Jesus would later highlight – may experience freedom and abundance.
In this politically divisive time the temptation is to bunker down with your fellow Democrats (or Republicans) and console (or congratulate) yourselves on your shared opinions. Or perhaps you’d rather avoid the ugliness of politics, choosing to focus only on the kingdom of God or the upcoming baseball season (both worthy goals to be sure).
If these options are lacking in the practicality that Isaiah demands, maybe your engagement begins by stepping out and literally feeding the hungry.
Maybe you can join a group and spend time with inmates at a nearby prison. Perhaps by joining in at the places our humanity is most apparent, in all its brokenness and beauty, your soul can embrace the “yes” of justice.
Maybe then you can lead the way for the rest of us in these troubling times.