One of the texts appointed for Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent in the Episcopal Church, is Isaiah 58:1-12, which says in part:
3 ...On your fast day you find your own pleasure and oppress all your workers.
4 ...Your fasting today will not make your voice heard on high.
6 Is not this the fast that I choose, to unlock the bonds of wickedness,
to release the yoke-ties that burden, to set the oppressed free, and to tear off the yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and the homeless poor, bring into your house?
When you see the naked, cover them, and from your own kin do not to hide yourself...
9 Then you shall call, and the HOLY ONE OF OLD shall answer;
you shall cry for help, and God shall say, Here am I...
The context of the Isaiah passage is the restoration of the Israelite people after the Babylonian exile and Persian subjugation. The prophet is speaking to folk who don't have much themselves and are longing for a return to a Golden Age long gone, you know, the way it used to (never) be. The horrors of the exile have ended but the Israelites -- really what remains of Judah with representatives from Benjamin and a few scattered tribes thrown in -- are not back in paradise. Everything is harder than they imagined it would be. They are poorer than they thought they would be. The Persians are intentionally keeping them too poor to mount a successful rebellion. And yet they have reinscribed old class stratifications on their renewed society. The rolls of returnees in Ezra and Nehemiah stipulate that there is at least one servant or slave for every six returnees, some of whom have become so indebted to their fellow Israelites that they have had to sell their children, and watch while their daughters were used by their neighbors. And while the temple has been restored, well if not fully restored, at least rebuilt, the good government jobs of the temple-industrial complex on Davidic and Solomonic scales are long gone.
To those who might feel that they have every right to say each woman or man for herself or himself, God through Isaiah's legacy says, You are not too poor to do justice. Times are not so hard that you're relieved of the obligation to do what is right. It doesn't matter how bad the economy is.
It would easy to say that this does not apply to us; very few of us are entrepreneurs or job-creators. Perhaps this verse is for the 1 percent. But let's do pause to ask ourselves the question: on this day are we oppressing others even as we outwardly afflict our souls? Now we don't all have employees, but we are part of institutions that do. And how do we treat those on whose labor our world, our institutions and our lives depend? In this broken but rebounding economy, it's easy to balance our budgets on the backs of the working poor, the used to be, want to be, middle class. We down-size and right-size and expect those who remain to do the work of those who have been voted off our islands, in our churches, schools, businesses, local, state and national governments.
And then there are the workers who make our very lives possible. The laborers who pick and produce our food and clothing and homes and gadgets work for all of us. And to the degree any are oppressed, we are all complicit. As Martin Luther King wrote in "Strength to Love":
"When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese, or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs, we are beholden to more than half the world."
We have become, perhaps, even more beholden in the decades since his martyrdom. We are accountable to and for that half of the world and the other half as well.
And so before we immerse ourselves in our Lenten disciplines, seeking to experience the presence of God anew in the coming wilderness, may we heed God's difficult words in Isaiah: Your fasting today will not make your voice heard on high. Should we persist in fasting, afflicting our souls in the language of my childhood church, God through Isaiah and those writing in Isaiah's name, describe the fast that pleases God. And there is no mention of chocolate.
It is not enough for us to refrain from oppressing God's children or even to work toward their liberation, especially when they are in our very midst, but we must also refrain from finger pointing and the kind of language that is the very antithesis of the good news. (Do God and Isaiah know that it's election season?) People are starving, dying. Do something. Don't just fast. Your hunger will not ameliorate their hunger.
Then and only then will God respond with an explosion of life in the wilderness of our lives.