Learn to do good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Defend the cause of orphans. Fight for the rights of widows. - Isaiah 1:17 (NLT)
In Lent, with its emphasis on prayer, self-examination and repentance, people have, historically, chosen to fast during the season of Lent. Fasting is a spiritual discipline designed to help us better focus on and connect with God. However, there is a staggering account of God’s anger and harsh critique, uttered through the prophet Isaiah, to those who practiced the ritual of fasting and the correct form of worship but missed their intended function.
The people are longing for God. They are engaging in the structure of the religious observance and doing it with abandon. Yet, the people are angry at God for not showing up, for not responding to their fasting and worship.
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’
God’s response, clear and sharp.
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. 4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. 5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
God charges that the people's “religion” is completely detached from the rest of their lives. The problem is their worship and fasting are having no effect on how they conduct themselves in all the other spheres of life. The workers in their midst were not being treated fairly; they were being oppressed. They quarreled and fought among themselves without any resolve. God isn’t declaring a food fast irrelevant or worthless. God is calling out a much deeper problem: somehow they have allowed this spiritual reality to become disconnected from the physical one around them by neglected those suffering injustice.
God, then, describes the kind of fast that pleases Him: to engage in the suffering of those around them:
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? 8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness[a] will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. 9 Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.
The word translated “righteousness” in verse 8 in Hebrew is "tsedaqah," which is the same root word translated “justice.” “Tzadeqah” is primarily about being in a right relationship with God, i.e., a righteous life that results that is profoundly social. The connection between righteousness and justice and providing for the poor must not be missed or minimized.
Jesus repeatedly seizes on this language of care and compassion. For example when he rebukes the Pharisees for being so meticulous in giving their tithe, yet they neglected “the more important matters of the law-justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23).
There are significantly over 2,100 verses in Scripture about justice for the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed. God cares deeply for them and He actively works to bring restoration, healing and justice…and much of how he chooses to do this is through his people.
Thus, returning whole-heartedly to God is not the end of our Lenten journey. As with any spiritual journey or discipline it is never complete until it is lived out in compassion to others. Among other things, to be shaped into the image of Christ means we become increasingly other-centered. As our inner life-thoughts, attitudes, desires, reactions-become more and more like those of Jesus our actions naturally flow out of heart like his in practical demonstrations of the love that has shaped us.
In other words, our formation in Christ has to make a difference in the way we live. Our faith must become an embodied faith where we should instinctively give our lives away to a hurting world in practical acts of kindness and service; to live in a way that demonstrates the kingdom and invites others to receive the friendship and mercy of God. In other words, mission is not something we do, it’s a way of living and moving gracefully in the world.
John Wesley wrote, “There can be no personal holiness without social holiness.”
Acts of compassion cannot just be programs that come and go…they must be part of the fabric of our church…and the stuff of our everyday lives as God’s people.
Where have you seen a disconnect between your spiritual life and your “everyday” life?
Go out of your way for others this week. Fast from indulging yourself time-wise. Make it a goal this week (and perhaps every week!) to bless someone else through your words or actions daily. Perhaps, help a friend move or paint, serve the poor, stop and help a stranger, especially if you are in a hurry to get somewhere.
These need not be great feats of devotion. Give someone else the gift of your listening ear. In a culture of haste and isolation, listening is one of the greatest forms of love. Resist the urge to share your troubles, and instead focus on someone else and helping to share in theirs.
© Gail Johnsen 2018