A brief essay on the meaning of true fasting
When I read the first reading for Friday after Ash Wednesday, taken from the book of the prophet Isaiah (58:1-9A), I was surprised when I noticed that the text contains a message exceptionally relevant for the times we live in.
In this message of Isaiah (58:1-9A), it is crystal clear that Elohim wants his chosen people to get rid of all wickedness and sins. Until the chosen people of God shake off their sins and wickedness, their fasting and acts of penance will be rendered fruitless and sterile.
On the third day of Lent, this message of the prophet Isaiah provides solid food for those who are advanced in both knowledge of God’s decrees and right praxis. In fact, reading this text serves as a realization that entering into the true spirit of Lent is not about “It-feels-good-to-me-practices.” But that it is something completely outside and beyond self gratifying acts.
From the three major penitential and cleansing exercises taught by the Jesus, and undertaken by true devote people (Cf. Mt 6:1-6, 16-18), prayer, fasting and almsgiving, Isaiah establishes what true fasting consist of and pleases the LORD:
“This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own” (Isa 58:6-7).
The message of the prophet Isaiah is relevant today, because it speaks to a current situation, especially in a time like ours when sojourners are being labeled as undesirable. But Isaiah’s indictment concerns all members of society, not just public servants, but all inhabitants of the land. Every one has been given a portion to fulfill God’s commands. In the end, those who have more resources as well as those who have less will be held accountable by the LORD. The time we live in, is the time of action, the time of judgement will come later: “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Mt 25:43).
Elohim made us all stewards of his power and creativity. And his wish concerning hospitality has been expressed by prophets and sacred writers consistently. For example, “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Ex 23:9).
This desire of Elohim, of being attentive and considerate to foreigners, is expressed time and time again: “You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:21).
In the mind of the LORD, it is clearly evident that true piety and fasting consist in doing the right actions for the benefit of others, especially for the most vulnerable in society. It is precisely this true fasting that pleases the LORD. On the other hand, doing the opposite, will spark the LORD’s anger and will yield bitter and unpleasant results: “If you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever” (Jer 7:6-7). This is what the LORD does not want: “Do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zach 7:10).
Here are a few more utterings taken from the Sacred texts concerning the mistreatment of sojourners:
“You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother. You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a sojourner in his land” (Dt 23:7)
“You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow's garment in pledge (Dt 24:17).
“Cursed be anyone who perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.’ And all the people shall say, Amen” (Dt 27:19).
“Thus says the LORD: Do justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor him who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jer 22:3).
“They kill the widow and the sojourner, and murder the fatherless” (Ps 94:6).
The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice (Ez 22:29).
“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts” (Mal 3:5).
“But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal 2:14).
I hope and pray that these excerpts from Sacred scripture will help us purify our Lenten observances. May the blessings of the LORD descend upon our land and all its inhabitants.