Homily for March 3rd, 2017: Isaiah 58:1-9a; Matt. 9:14-15.
Lent is an opportunity for what is called in sports ‘spring training.’ It encourages us to take up three practices which are as essential for spiritual health as regular physical exercise and a healthy diet are for an athlete: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Both of today’s reading focus on the second practice: fasting.
Voluntarily giving up things we may legitimately enjoy, as an expression of our love for God, strengthens our wills and spiritual muscles. This helps us to resist the lures and lies of Satan, when he tempts us to make choices that we know to be sinful. Fasting may be of many kinds: refraining from food or drink, reducing the time we spend in front of the TV, computer, or movie screen, or engaging in hobbies and other legitimate leisure activities.
Our first reading is a searing indictment of a wrong kind of fasting. The prophet Isaiah represents people who fast asking God: “Why do you not see it [and] take no note of it?” Speaking for God, which is what prophets do, Isaiah gives the answer. “You fast, but while you do so, you continue to act unjustly: fighting, quarrelling, abusing those who work for you.” If you want God to heed your prayers, work for justice, and for changing structures of society that cause injustice. Practice acts of charity for the poor, free those oppressed by unjust laws.
There is a tragic division in the American Catholic family today: between the so-called social justice Catholics and those who concentrate, sometimes exclusively, on the so-called life issues: abortion, gay-marriage, and the family. These life issues are crucial. But so is social justice. There should be no opposition between them. Isaiah’s words show that both are essential. The Lord calls us, Isaiah says, to release those bound unjustly; to set free the oppressed; to share our bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and homeless, to clothe the naked when we see them. There are people in our parish who are doing all those things. When we join them, Isaiah promises, our light will break forth like the dawn, our wounds will be quickly healed. “Then you shall call,” Isaiah says, “and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!” That, friends, is the gospel. That is the Good News!