The Fast of Isaiah 58, Part II
A few days ago, I wrote a blog post in which I simply quoted Isaiah Chapter 58 as suggesting the proper attitude for our fasting during Lent. That chapter contrasts fasting with an improper attitude, which God hates, with the proper attitude that one should have for a fast. Strikingly, the activities mentioned as illustrating proper attitude toward the fast (share food with the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless, clothe the naked) have nothing to do with our own consumption of food.
Yesterday, I stumbled upon a book which specifically discusses what is meant by the two different types of fasting referred to in that passage. Timothy Keller, writing in the book, Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just, states in reference to Isaiah 58:
Fasting should be a symbol of a pervasive change across the whole face of one’s life. People changed by grace should go, as it were, on a permanent fast. . . . What is this permanent fasting? It is to work against injustice, to share food, clothing, and home with the hungry and the homeless. That is the real proof that you believe your sins have been atoned for, and that you have truly been humbled by that knowledge and are now living a life submitted to god and shaped by knowledge of him. People who fast and pray ritually but still show pride and haughtiness toward the poor and needy reveal that no true humbling has ever penetrated into their hearts. If you look down at the poor and stay aloof from their suffering, you have not really understood or experienced God’s grace.
It is difficult not to think of the elder brother in Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son. The people God addresses, like the elder brother, complain that God is not doing their will, and that they deserve his support since they have been so obedient. But the truth is that their obedience is only formal and external; it is filled with self-righteousness and is motivated by a desire to control God, not actually serve him. Such people show they are complying with religious observances as a way of “getting ahead” with God and others. This deadly spiritual condition shows itself in a lack of loving service toward others, and particularly an indifference to the poor.
I was pleasantly surprised that Keller sees the connection between the fast of the self righteous and the spiritual attitude of the elder brother in the story of the Prodigal Son.
(In this illustration of that story by Rembrandt, the elder brother can be seen off to the right side, observing with some condemnation his father and younger brother.)
The link between Isaiah 58 and this story had occurred to me also, but I try not to force my own preconceived notions about what “ought” to be, into what passages I think are relevant to one another. Because Keller also saw the connection, I feel reassured that my own sense of the connection is not misplaced. Therefore, tomorrow I will write more about the principles of Isaiah 58, using the specific illustration of the elder brother in the story of the Prodigal Son.
For today, however, in my own personal life, what I am focusing on is the grace-filled aspect of fasting. The idea, as expressed by Keller, that fasting is the outward manifestation of a structural change wrought in our lives by acceptance of grace. When we accept God’s grace, our hearts are changed. That inward change is manifested outwardly by a renewed commitment to root out the seeds of injustice that grow like weeds in our own personal life and in our outer world.