Comment (6th February 2011)

Isaiah 58:1-9a

In our Old Testament reading Isaiah has an uncomfortable message for his hearers. The people of his day were religious. They attended worship, they asked God for help, and they held days of fasting before God in order to add weight to their requests. Yet Isaiah is told to make public their rebellion and sins. He focuses on their fasting, and explains why that particular religious practice was so obnoxious to God.

Fasting in itself was not a bad thing. Some days of fasting were included in the law. In the sermon on the mount Jesus gives instructions about fasting, so we can reasonably assume that he expected his disciples to fast sometimes. However, the people in Isaiah’s day spoilt their fasting by their evil actions. Isaiah lists them: while fasting they continued doing what they pleased rather than practising self denial; they continued exploiting their workers rather than acting with justice and love; and their fast days often ended with a punch up! Their religious activities were all correct – bowing their heads, lying down on sackcloth and ashes. But religious activity by itself was (and is) useless. God looks at the heart, and if our heart is not right then our actions are worthless.

Isaiah then teaches the people about what God finds acceptable. The fasting God approves of is not only denying oneself some food. That can be part of it, but it is only a small part. True fasting is denying oneself in order to give of oneself in love. Action against injustice, or setting people free from whatever is binding them, can cost both time and money, and maybe reputation and friends. Likewise providing for the poor and the hungry can be a costly exercise. Even looking after members of our family in need can be difficult, especially if those needs are likely to be long term. Yet these things are the ways love works, and true love is sacrificial rather than self-centred. That is true fasting.

True religion is rewarding. The reward includes a close relationship with God, in which he is attentive to us and meets our needs. But the reward is not so much in the fact that he looks after us, healing us and answering our cries for help. It is in the relationship itself, and the honour in which God holds us.

True religion is attractive. Isaiah talked about light dawning, healing appearing, righteousness ahead and glory behind! Jesus tells us to let our light shine before others, so that they see our good deeds in such a way that they cannot but acknowledge that God has been at work in our lives. We are not to put on a show – that was what the Israelites were doing. But neither are we to hide from others the difference that God makes in our lives.

To God be the glory!

Questions

1) How can we make sure that our religious activities are done in spirit and in truth?

2) Should we fast sometimes? If so, why and how?