Friday, February 8, 2008

Isaiah and the Problem of Religious Practices

The lectionary for February 8 contains a reading from Isaiah 58:1-9a that is relevant to much in our lives today, especially as we begin the season of Lent. The people to whom Isaiah speaks were observant. They fasted; they afflicted themselves; they prayed. And yet, they felt that God had abandoned them. "Why do we fast, and you do not see it? afflict ourselves, you take no note of it?" They were following all the rules and did not receive the benefits of their special relationship with God.

They, as I often do, missed the point. Careful observance of religious practices does not somehow earn the favor of God. The loving concern of God is there for the asking, not the earning. In fact, all we need do is accept God's love in a way that changes us in a much more fundamental way than any prayer or practice can possibly do. As Psalm 51 tell us in today Responsorial Psalm, acceptance of God's love results in a "heart contrite and humbled." It is this changed heart that expresses itself in the kind of fasting pleasing to God.

"This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own."

As far as I can tell, all the major religions focus on a change of heart that is the source of both religious practices and acting in the world with justice and mercy. It is not that prayers or even acts of justice earn the favor of God but rather that an acceptance of God's life and love in each of us that naturally overflows into prayer and justice. When Jesus spoke of faith without love being as empty as a clanging cymbal, he was recalling this ancient insight. When Ghandi said that he would become a Christian if he had every met one, he was referring to the same thing.

As a Christian entering the season of Lent, I am called to refocus on this fundamental dynamic. Prayer, fasting, and justice are the fruits of faith. The Ten Commandments and other moral precepts are not so much rules to live by as they are descriptions of the life of those who have entered into the life of God. Lent is a time to rededicate myself to this faith and to the ways in which I express this in my daily life. My goal is that this new life "shall break forth life the dawn."

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