‘We have fasted before you!’ they say.
‘Why aren’t you impressed?
We have been very hard on ourselves,
and you don’t even notice it!’
“I will tell you why!” I respond.
“It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
you keep oppressing your workers.
What good is fasting
when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
will never get you anywhere with me.
You humble yourselves
by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?
Do you really think this will please the LORD?
“No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
and do not hide from relatives who need your help.
“Then your salvation will come like the dawn,
and your wounds will quickly heal.
Your godliness will lead you forward,
and the glory of the LORD will protect you from behind. (Isaiah 58:1-9)
It is human nature to imagine that depriving ourselves makes us better people. Office workers often one up one another describing how hard they had to work, how many hours of sleep they missed, how many weekends they spent in the office, as if those things prove that useful labor actually happened.
God was not impressed by his people wearing uncomfortable clothing or going without food, because all that did was build their egos. They could pat themselves on the back for their suffering, for how good they must be for what they had given up, for how much God must owe them. But God really cared only about how people treated each other, not what they imagined constituted piety.
How many religious bumper stickers are on our cars, how big our Bibles might be, how loud or frequent our prayers, doesn’t matter. What matters is what we have done for those who can’t advance our careers or status. God cares about love, not the trappings of piety.