Ancient Answers

Guidance for Today from Scripture and Early Christianity

“Why do we fast?”

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I heard an interesting story this morning on NPR. Ari Shapiro reported from Jerusalem on a gathering of Palestinian Moslems and Israeli Jews to wage peace. They gather in the evening, after a day of fasting, to break their fast together: observant Jews to mark the beginning of the destruction of the Temple and Moslems to mark the holy month of Ramadan. One of the Jewish women participating explained the meaning of fasting for the Jews: For Jews, fasting is to beseech God. “Look, we’re withholding pleasure, we’re withholding food and drink, because we need you to recognize that something is going on that needs attention.”

I heard that and I thought to myself that is exactly how fasting was viewed in the Hebrew scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament). As a matter of fact, in Isaiah chapter 58 God speaks to the people through the prophet. First, the people are quoted as they present their fasting to God, and then God responds with God’s own view on fasting. This is a powerful passage that every “observant” Christian, Jew or Moslem should read a few times a year. I’m posting this passage from Isaiah here without further comment from me. Anything I say will be redundant. But I will have more to say about fasting as we approach the August fast in the Orthodox Church known as the Dormition Fast (Aug 1-14). But here is the passage from Isaiah. The people question God and then God speaks for the rest of the passage. Notice how similar is the language of the people’s questioning of God to what the Jewish woman told Ari Shapiro. Perhaps that gathering of Jews and Moslems to break fast together is precisely an action of the kind that God honors in this passage from Isaiah. Perhaps their fast will reach God more than all the diplomatic and non-diplomatic maneuvers of the military powers:

“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs 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 them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator 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 for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Is 58:3–14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

One thought on ““Why do we fast?”

  1. Interesting incident this afternoon. I was checking out some groceries at Hannaford supermarket and the young man at the register starting telling me about Ramadan and the fast which ends at sunset every day. I haven’t the slightest idea what brought it on that he should start talking to me about Ramadan. I could tell by his name that he was Moslem (of Somalian descent,as he informed me), but I certainly didn’t say or ask him anything about his religion. It was curious. Fasting is important in the Orthodox church as well, but it has become a private, personal discipline. Strict observance of fasting rules are observed by very few Orthodox people.

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