I read yesterday in the Houston Catholic Worker that Mark Zwick died there in November at the age of 88 from complications of Parkinson’s Disease. Mark and his wife Louise founded Houston’s Casa San Diego in 1981. From one small rented building, the Catholic Worker house grew to number ten buildings and sheltered over 100,000 refugees in its 36-year history. Today, it feeds and shelters 500 families a week. As I read about Mark and his family, and the celebration of his life and work, I realized again what t means to follow Jesus closely and literally. It was an appropriate prompt for Lenten reflection.
Today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel comes in the 9th chapter from a dispute between Jesus and some followers of John the Baptist, who apparently followed a strict penitential regimen like the Pharisees, the Essenes, and other very devout Jews. What Jesus says about fasting is surprising, if possibly less so than Isaiah’s tirade. But in a way it is even more radical, especially as we recover from the excesses of Mardi Gras and the relative sobriety of Ash Wednesday.
The point Isiah and Jesus are making is not just about fasting – hardly any one fasts any more, anyway. Trying to find a meatless meal on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday isn’t all that easy, either.
Actually, there’s a clue in both readings that religious fasting isn’t all it’s sometimes cracked up to be. Just about every religious tradition has used fasting or abstinence as a way of developing or heightening religious devotion and commitment. It’s a good thing for health, too, unless a person is so poor they have no alternative. Sometimes we might even fast for a day or so to express our so-called solidarity with the poor. We may even donate the money we could have spent on pizza to a collection. And hungry again the next day, we can always buy more pizza and forget about the poor. But they can’t. That’s why there is famine in South Sudan.
But fasting, Jesus tells us, as Isaiah did before him, is not a spiritual tactic, not something we do to get God’s attention or gain attention for a worthy cause, or even, sad to say, to atone for our sins. Fasting is just… fasting. Like prayer and contemplation, it is not done for ulterior purposes of any kind. It’s an expression, a sign – a sign of sadness perhaps, but essentially a way of reminding ourselves of values we should always keep in mind. It’s good for us and that’s that. Feasting is, likewise. What counts, Jesus says, is knowing when to feast and when to fast. More important is recognizing what God expects from us beyond all such observances – a theme we shall hear frequently in the days to come – freeing the oppressed, welcoming the refugee, sharing our food with the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, and watching out for the welfare of our neighbor. Otherwise, it makes no difference at all whether we fast or feast.