A Question about Going
1On the fourth day of Chislev, the ninth month of the fourth year that Darius was king of Persia, the Lord again spoke to me. 2-3It happened after the people of Bethel had sent Sharezer with Regem-Melech and his men to ask the priests in the Lord's temple and the prophets to pray for them. So they prayed, “Should we mourn and go without eating during the fifth month, as we have done for many years?”
4-5It was then that the Lord All-Powerful told me to say to everyone in the country, including the priests:
For 70 years you have gone without eating during the fifth and seventh months of the year. But did you really do it for me? 6And when you eat and drink, isn't it for your own enjoyment? 7My message today is the same one I commanded the earlier prophets to speak to Jerusalem and its villages when they were prosperous, and when all of Judah, including the Southern Desert and the hill country, was filled with people.
8-9So once again, I, the Lord All-Powerful, tell you, “See that justice is done and be kind and merciful to one another! 10Don't mistreat widows or orphans or foreigners or anyone who is poor, and stop making plans to hurt each other.”
11-12But everyone who heard those prophets, stubbornly refused to obey. Instead, they turned their backs on everything my Spirit had commanded the earlier prophets to preach. So I, the Lord, became angry 13and said, “You people paid no attention when I called out to you, and now I'll pay no attention when you call out to me.”
As a way of keeping the community memory alive, the Jerusalem exiles gave themselves to rituals at certain times of the year. In the fifth month, for instance, they would abstain from food as they lamented the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, which occurred in the fifth month (August) of 587 bc. But, now that the Temple was being rebuilt, a delegation from the city of Bethel in the north wanted to know whether or not it was appropriate to continue this ritual as well as other traditions that had sustained them in their banishment.
But rather than issue a policy revision, the Lord goes to the heart of religious devotion itself. He answers their question with three more: Why were you really fasting in the first place? Was it to achieve some sort of self-satisfaction? Why do you think the prophets issued calls to fast, even when times were peaceful and prosperous? True fasting, the prophet continues, is accompanied by the administration of justice, the showing of kindness, and the giving of mercy to the poor and those in need (7:9-10). Above all, it is to be responsive to God’s Spirit as he brings his word to our hearts (7:12).
In our day, fasting is regarded more as a slimming technique than an act of devotion. And yet, there is value in the practice if it is undertaken in the right way. It can be a useful exercise if it becomes a means of opening ourselves up to God, of expressing our absolute need of him, which is more important than food itself. But Jesus warns us that we must avoid the temptation to spiritual arrogance that comes with fasting (Matthew 6:16-18). As Basil of Caesarea wrote, “The estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood and perjury – privation of these is true fasting.”
God of compassion, through your Son Jesus Christ you reconciled your people to yourself. Following His example of prayer and fasting, may we obey you with willing hearts and serve one another in holy love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.