And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”
(Mark 9:35 ESV)
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 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 him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
We who live in Western culture are comfort addicts first and foremost. Above all of our addictive behaviors, we do everything we possibly can to attend to our own comfort and the comfort of those around us; to deaden the “pain” (and the pains) of life with medication, whether administered by a doctor or by ourselves; to push the unpleasant out of our sphere.
The proliferation of self-service gyms dotting the landscape (usually right next door to either a McDonald’s or a pizzeria) may appear to encourage self-discipline, but when you think about it, if we were simply getting out, exercising, and working with our hands, there’d be no need to go to a gym. We’re really doing it for our comfort, not for our health. We’re also trying to assuage the relative guilt we probably feel because we spend so much time on our comfy couch eating high fat/high salt snacks and drinking sugar-charged soda while the ideal man or woman on the 72” flat-panel over our faux-fireplace tells us we need to use an ab-cruncher.
According to the New York Times, Health Section, January 13, 2010, “The percentages [of obese people in the US] have topped out at very high numbers. Nearly 34 percent of adults are obese, more than double the percentage 30 years ago. The share of obese children tripled during that time, to 17 percent.”
So now, on top of all our other addictions, it turns out we’re addicted to food. Do yourself a favor. Take a copy of Isaiah 58 with you and go to the Mall at lunchtime. Now seat yourself where you can get a good panorama of the food court. You need to be hungry and ready to eat for this assignment to work.
A lot of people here in the West have a really hard time understanding why someone might fast. The whole practice seems like religious ritual or an exercise in self-denial, and seems to run contrary to what might be considered healthy.
Enter Isaiah. It turns out that fasting really is healthy if one of your addictions happens to be food. Here are the health benefits of fasting: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke. I’m not joking here. Fasting in a limited way really will help you break the oppression of addiction.
Here’s where you need to stop reading and take a really good look around the food court. What do you see? What kind of food is being offered? Note the weight of so many of the people – half of them obese teens – standing in line for the stuff.
But there’s another reason to fast. When you see others strapped tightly in the bonds of wickedness or yoked to slavery; oppressed by evil overseers who take no care of those they enslave, but are merely out for personal gain or domination, wouldn’t you want to do something proactive to help change their condition? A cry to God is the best thing you can issue. Protesting in the streets rarely changes a social ill (though it does sometimes). Taking up arms is the last thing that ever redresses a social ill.
On the other hand, there have been some notable fasts that did bring social ills to the attention of world governments. In 1920, 1932, and most successfully in 1948, Mohandas K. Ghandi fasted, and ultimately brought the British government to its knees. Fasting as a method of non-violent protest works. How much more do you think a fast with purpose can move the forces in heavenly places and bring attention for your cause before God?
There are other benefits to fasting. It makes what you have stretch further. The food on your shelves can now feed twice as many people. Are you sitting in the Mall with Isaiah the way I assigned you to? You have money in your pocket you would have spent on that Mall Junk, right? You may have also been planning on “picking up a few things” while you shopped. Go to whatever stores you were planning on patronizing and take a calculator with you. Total how much you honestly would have bought today, including the cost of your lunch. Now write a check to your favorite charity and send it off. You didn’t need that stuff anyway. Fasting from commerce today has given you the opportunity to put your faith into action.
The next step, of course, is the hardest. Jesus told his disciples that if they wanted to be first in the kingdom they had to serve most. The gospel always works backward from the way we thought. God wants you to bring your fasting back home with you from the Mall. Fast at home, Isaiah says, then invite someone in need home to share the bread you were able to save. Fast the space you occupy, and bring someone in need home to share your house with you. Fast the clothes you own and bring some to someone in need that you might share them with that person. Does God quite literally and really mean for us to do THAT? Yes.
Finally, Isaiah adds this odd statement, “and not hide yourself from your own flesh.” When we fast, Jesus tells us to do it in secret (Matthew 6:18). But in this case, if I actually invited the poor and needy into my home to share our food, space, and clothes, it would be pretty difficult for me to keep it from my own family. So the deed I’m going to do “in secret” is actually one I’m going to involve my immediate family in so that they too can benefit from the blessing, and learn to live in community and to live as the incarnation of Jesus in the world.
It is also possible people in Israel in 700 BC had become so selfish that when they saw their own family members coming begging for bread, they hid (taking the text quite literally), so as not to have to share with even them.
One last thing to notice about the people who stand in line for fast food at the mall: they’re often alone. You don’t see a lot of people eating alone in fine dining restaurants, because the experience is designed for quiet conversation and socializing. But I’ve eaten more than my share of Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King sitting alone in my Honda or eating off a plastic tray, seated on a plastic disc, affixed to a plastic table at the Mall. This practice now seems ever so ridiculous to me. No one with a house, two cars, and a family can possibly be that hungry.
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’