Today’s first reading is from a text referred to by scholars as “Third” Isaiah. He is the third writer on this long scroll known generically as “Isaiah.” This section extends from chapter 56 to the end of the scroll (or book)–that is, to what we know as chapter 66. Why is that important? The text draws from the situation at the time it was written, and our task is to understand how it connects to our own historical and personal experience. Language is not spoken or written in an historical vacuum. By the time this text was composed, the Jewish people had returned from exile in Babylon, the Temple had been rebuilt and the idea of God’s dwelling with them was more intense…God is understood as present to them and through this text –present to us. And that presence calls for response. What is God asking of us?
The issue in both texts this morning is “fasting.” There are times to fast—and times to celebrate, to enjoy the goods of the earth. But today’s reading suggests that we sometimes don’t understand what fasting is all about—giving up candy (or desserts ) for Lent may be difficult, but it is not exactly heroic. The prophet this morning asks us to “set free the oppressed.” But what if we are the oppressors? Who are those we oppress? –Whom I oppress? . . . (WE— –I’m not talking about radical Islamists or racists . . .we can oppress without their help. ) It is just a matter of denigrating people we live with or work with, or privately regarding another person with contempt. That is the kind of self- indulgence we are asked to resist. We are asked to “set free the oppressed.” That kind of effort is preferred to fasting. How do we free those around us whom we refuse to love? How do we free ourselves from our own self-hatred? Giving up ice cream isn’t going to fix that kind of bad habit.
In this Gospel reading, Jesus redefines fasting. Giving up candy is easy compared to giving up our opinions, or our hostility to another , or giving up our leisure to study something—anything (but preferably scripture). Lent is not about self-control (which is hard enough) but self-giving—and self emptying. If that kind of effort is hard—and it is—we can count on the Lord’s help: “If you cry for help, today’s reading reminds us, “You shall call—and the Lord will answer. . .He will say to us in what may be our desperation, “Here I am!”
He is here, and in our self doubt and perhaps lack of confidence in our own capacity to love, we can call to Him. “‘Here I am’” Is the response. His presence among us is the basis of our hope and our reason to love and forgive one another and to celebrate— with or without ice cream—even in Lent.