The prophets of the Old Testament were always pretty clear about the fact that God was sick and tired of people trying to claim righteousness but not really being righteous. The idea of keeping the letter but not the spirit of the Law, of fasting and praying with the express idea of getting these things over with so one could return to cheating the poor was repugnant – is repugnant – to our God. The prophets cried out full-throated and unsparingly that worship of God was not a part-time endeavor, that the time for “business as usual” was over.
In Hebrew, the word for “righteousness” is tseh’-dek, which has the connotation of right relationship. This was the theme of the prophets: that right relationship, a relationship directed toward God and toward others, was the only thing that could ever deliver true peace.
This is the call of Isaiah in today’s first reading. God makes it clear through Isaiah that showy fasting, mortification and sacrifice is not what God wants from humankind. God, who made us for himself, wants us – all of us, and not just some dramatic show of false piety, put on display for all the world to see. God doesn’t want fasting that ends in quarrelling and fighting with others, because that destroys the right relationships that our fast should be leading us toward in the first place.
So, if we really want to fast, says Isaiah, we need to put all that nonsense aside. Our true fast needs to be a beacon of justice, a wholehearted reaching out to the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized. As we get into our Lenten practices these days, we too might find that our self-sacrifice ends up pushing us away from others, and ultimately from God. That’s not a sign to give it up, but maybe more to redirect it. If we give up something, we should also balance that with a renewed effort to reach out to God and others. Right relationship should be the goal of all of our Lenten efforts this year. And we can truly live that kind of penitence with joy because it comes with a great promise, says Isaiah:
Your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!