An Acceptable Fast
Ash Wednesday; March 6, 2019
Ash Wednesday is a day to be disturbed, at least a little. So that I should read from the prophet Isaiah some words that start out, "Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins" is not so surprising. After all, we pay attention to two things today, both of them things we would rather avoid talking about: sin and mortality. We'll admit that we are sinners, as long we don't have to talk about actual sins in particular, and we'll acknowledge that we are mortal, as long as it's someone else's death we're talking about.
Just to recap the Prophet's critique: he is critical of the people's religious practice. They perform the right rituals, when it comes to prayer and song, feasting and fasting, but his critique is that their rituals do not match their morality. The people don't understand why things don't go better for them, when they're keeping all the fast days and such, and the Prophet says, "Well, look, what do you do with your fast days? You use them as an opportunity to cheat your employees. You use them as wedges to divide yourselves against each other. If you would keep an acceptable fast, doing your religious duties and your moral duties toward each other, then your righteousness would shine as a light to all."
The thing that's most annoying to me about the Prophet's critique is he doesn't really demand anything heroic. The poetry is quite elegant, but it seems to me to boil down to this: treat your employees fairly and look after your relatives. Line up your treatment of others with your fasting and praying and the like, and God will be among you.
So the Prophet isn't saying that fasting is worthless; there is a lot of good that can be said about fasting. He's saying not to expect that God is going to bend over backwards answering your cries when you practice a fast and then cheat your workers or refuse to take in your homeless relatives.
It seems that the older I get the more often I have a "Yes, but" reaction to Scripture. In this case, it has to do with the Prophet's assumption that when a relative needs something, we should always jump to their aid:
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And bring the homeless poor into your house;
When you see the naked, to cover them,
And not to hide yourself from your own kin? (v. 7)
Maybe you know someone who has a homeless relative and your advice has been: practice tough love; don't take them in. A man I knew was chronically homeless; his addictive behaviors and refusal to deal with them led him to lose any job he ever got and he seemed determined to kill himself with booze. I stopped giving him aid and the last straw for him was when his sister refused to take him in or give him food or money.
Something broke in him and he went to the Salvation Army for help. We didn't know that at the time; we just knew he had disappeared. We learned that he went through their rehab program, he got and kept a job. The turnaround for us was the next Christmas; his sister spent Christmas Day with us, not having heard from him since he disappeared, and he phoned our house on Christmas Day and talked with her. He told her how well he was doing and told her that what we had done saved his life.
It isn't always going to turn out that way, of course. But it would not have turned out that way if we had kept giving him food, money, and shelter, as it seems the Prophet wants us to do. So I don't know what to say to the Prophet, but as with almost everything in Scripture, it seems to me there's a limit. And the limit is this: don't make other people dependent on you. Help out your relatives, treat your employees fairly, but never compromise other people's dignity.
Those of us who were together in Nicaragua talked about that quite a bit this weekend. On the surface, it seems so simple: we have money, they don't, we should give it to them. But there are multiple problems with thinking that way. One is that we North Americans can be brutally insensitive to other people's cultural and historical priorities. We think that they should use money the way we tell them to. Another is that we think people should be grateful and then do for us whatever we tell them to. And another is that we rob people of dignity, making them dependent on us.
I fully support and believe in giving money for assistance, that when we prosper and others struggle, the prosperous should help. That is an acceptable fast. But we have to be careful not to create dependency. One writer, I don't recall who, said that it is important not to do for others what they can do for themselves. When we do for others what they can do for themselves, we promote dependency and rob them of dignity. If we're talking about what they cannot do for themselves, that's another matter. Now, this writer was giving advice to pastors in our relationship with our congregations, but it's applicable here too. I have a sense that it is important not to do things for other people and then demand appreciation, not to do things for others in order to make ourselves feel good.
It's a hard road to navigate, and more nuanced than what the Prophet says. But after living among proud, hard-working Nicaraguan people for a week… no, I'm not an expert. But I have a glimpse of the reality.
Friends in Christ, I decided not to start dumping Nicaragua stories on you tonight, so I have only that one observation from my time there. I'll do my best to ration my Nicaragua stories. I saw how the folks I came to know there try very hard to make their religious practice and their moral practice align in terms of their work, their politics, and the way they treat others. Treat your employees fairly and look after your relatives: that's an acceptable fast. It's a struggle to get that right, and we have our lifetime to work on it. Let's do some working on aligning our religion and our moral practice in work, politics, and the way we treat others during this Lent.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master