The value of fasting

Isaiah 58:1-9, Psalm 51, Matthew 9:14-15

Fasting is central to the Lenten period. Isaiah puts some preconditions for people to fast so that it may become a meaningful practice. We hear in the first reading how the people were very angry when Isaiah accused them of rebelling against God. They saw themselves as devout Jews, faithful to tradition. But this uncompromising prophet replied that even if they fasted for religious purposes, they were still unworried about oppressing their workers. The traditions they practiced were not what God required. Their rituals had become merely a traditional activity with no moral benefit. Even on their fasting-days, they ended up arguing, self-righteous and disunited. Today, we too can fall into this syndrome, putting questions of ritual, etiquette and procedure on a higher pedestal than they deserve, while leaving the substance of charity (i.e. loving service, as prescribed by Jesus, the washer of feet) on the back burner.

The ideal of “walking-with-God” is not fulfilled by attending church once or twice a week. We become so wrapped up in our own concerns, we hardly have time for conversing with God our Maker. But spurred on by the prophet Isaiah, we now clearly know that God is offering us a special blessing in this season of Lent. The fasting God wants from us this Lent is to clothe the naked, to right some injustice, to feed the hungry and to advocate for those who have no home. We need to think and pray about loving our neighbour as ourselves. As always, the living Word is here to help and guide us.

We normally link fasting with reducing our intake of food. But Isaiah defined fasting in a new way. We need to identify and reduce the things that damage and oppress other people, promote justice on behalf of those in need. Genuine fasting cannot be separated from almsgiving or sharing our resources with others.

Isaiah’s message is that true fasting primarily should enable us to get rid of sinful ways and attitudes and open the way for charity and compassion towards others. Growing closer to God and one another should be the motive behind fasting. Jesus clarified this aspect of fasting as he challenged his adversaries who fasted often. According to Jesus, those who are in the circle of God and all those who are in tune with God’s ways do not need fasting. They enjoy the freedom of doing what God wants of them and are committed to it. Fasting is for us sinners that we may sincerely seek the face of God through self-denial and mortification.

Ash Wednesday recommends the three great Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Isaiah reminds us that all three stand or fall together. They are three pillars of a worthy life. Fasting is saying “no” to something. Isaiah reminds us that such saying “no” is with a view to saying “YES” to a greater service of our neighbour. Any service done in love is very acceptable to God and gives substance to anything else we may do for Lent.

May God receive our Lenten sacrifices and observances and purify us for himself!