It is Lent. We are getting deeper into a season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. During this time it is easy to get distracted by what we aren’t doing. There are habits, foods, or drinks from which we are fasting and that is good. However, sometimes I don’t think we explore enough prepositions. Not only are there the things from which I fast, there are things for which I fast. This broader view can be summarized to include fasting for prayer, fasting for charity, and fasting for obedience.
There are great things to be said about fasting for prayer and for almsgiving (charity), but they fall outside the scope of today’s readings. However, when I read the final paragraph of the passage from Isaiah about fasting from my own desires on the Sabbath, it was like I read those commands with fresh eyes. That freshness is what I’m calling fasting for obedience.
I’ve heard, or even said, fasting helps with self-mastery. The idea is that through fasting we work towards getting our appetites and desires in check. This definition is true and good but Isaiah’s words about the Sabbath struck me as an invitation to something deeper and enlightened fasting in a new way. In Isaiah’s passage one can find the distinction I’m drawing between fasting for control and fasting for obedience. What Isaiah showed me was that the Christian practice of self-denial (whether through fasting or living out the Sabbath) is less about self-mastery and more about self-availability. Self-mastery lets me diet, but availability lets me be a disciple.
For example, imagine if in today’s Gospel passage, Levi was called from his tax collector’s table to just go about the rest of his life developing little strategies to resist his greed. That would be admirable, maybe, but not the radical story of this disciple. Now, we’re not merely theorizing either, for isn’t that the story of the Rich Young Man? Doesn’t he get called to radical discipleship but then continues to walk the path of self-mastery (a path at which he was good according to the gospels). But Levi doesn’t merely give up his work as a tax collector, he throws the huge party for all to attend. He didn’t merely gain self-mastery, he responded to Christ’s call with self-availability so that his self could be mastered by the Lord of the Sabbath himself.
So we should fast this Lent, but let’s not forget that merely fasting from something sounds more like dieting. We should remember to name what we are fasting for.