People who use sacred texts have often found ways of selecting passages appropriate to their needs. Disciples of Confucius used a complex system of hexagrams, chosen by lot, to find images and comments suitable to their time, place and situation. In classical and medieval times, the writings of Virgil and Homer were used in a similar way. Sometimes the Bible was accessed by lot or dice or random procedures. The Church responded to the need to select appropriate wisdom from the Bible, by the daily lectionary, a selection of readings for every day in the year, which was originally used in monasteries, but has for some time been used in daily mass in the Catholic Church, and for private devotion in others. Obviously the choice of passages reflects a theology and the Christian calendar, but it also has an arbitrary element. It asks the reader, “Can this wisdom be applied to your soul, your community, your place, today?” This blog follows the daily readings and hopes to uncover some wisdom.
Reading 1, Isaiah 58:1-9a
1 Shout for all you are worth, do not hold back, raise your voice like a trumpet. To my people proclaim their rebellious acts, to the House of Jacob, their sins.
2 They seek for me day after day, they long to know my ways, like a nation that has acted uprightly and not forsaken the law of its God. They ask me for laws that are upright, they long to be near God:
3 ‘Why have we fasted, if you do not see, why mortify ourselves if you never notice?’ Look, you seek your own pleasure on your fastdays and you exploit all your workmen;
4 look, the only purpose of your fasting is to quarrel and squabble and strike viciously with your fist. Fasting like yours today will never make your voice heard on high.
5 Is that the sort of fast that pleases me, a day when a person inflicts pain on himself? Hanging your head like a reed, spreading out sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call fasting, a day acceptable to the Lord?
6 Is not this the sort of fast that pleases me: to break unjust fetters, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break all yokes?
7 Is it not sharing your food with the hungry, and sheltering the homeless poor; if you see someone lacking clothes, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own kin?
8 Then your light will blaze out like the dawn and your wound be quickly healed over. Saving justice will go ahead of you and the Lord’s glory come behind you.
9 Then you will cry for help and the Lord will answer; you will call and he will say, ‘I am here.’
Gospel, Matthew 9:14-15
14 Then John’s disciples came to him and said, ‘Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not?’
15 Jesus replied, ‘Surely the bridegroom’s attendants cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is still with them? But the time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.
Lent is the time for fasting in the catholic tradition of faith. In the Presbyterian tradition, to which I belong, we abolished all such penitential practices as savouring of salvation by works, rather than by grace. The notion of walking the road of the cross with Jesus remains, however, an important challenge to all believers, especially to those whose affluence puts them at safe distance from most of the world’s suffering. In this regard the words of the “third” Isaiah are radical. In God’s name, the prophet mocks the formalities of fasting, which inflict pain on the worshipper and cause bad temper, while the workmen are still exploited. Genuine self-discipline must be for the sake of justice, whereby the oppressed are set free, the hungry fed, the homeless housed, and the naked clothed. The final clause in this sequence is translated “not to hide from your own kin” in most modern versions, and that is a likely enough meaning, but the Hebrew uses the word, “bashar” flesh, and it seems to me better to retain this more profound command, “not to hide from your own flesh”, i.e. the fragile flesh of all humanity. With the command goes a promise, “Saving justice will go ahead of you and the Lord’s glory will come behind you,”- when the people identify with God’s saving justice, they are encompassed with God’s presence. In this way fasting becomes an evangelical practice.
Jesus answer to the question about fasting strikes a different note. His messianic ministry is like a marriage feast, a time of joy, during which any sadness would be inappropriate. He hints at his own death, “when the bridegroom will be taken away.” Then, fasting will be required. Jesus’ ministry of saving justice brought a great happiness, which is still present wherever that ministry is continued, even in the midst of suffering. Lent can be a time in which we free ourselves to share in Jesus’ liberating ministry and his joy.