You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord? “No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help. “Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind. (NLT)
It is so typical of human beings to twist a good thing. To keep the letter of the law and ignore the spirit. To outwardly conform and yet inwardly rebel. The practice of fasting is one such example. The general idea was to forgo certain normal routines so that there could be focus on one overriding issue. There was also an element of mourning for shortcomings. As everyday clutter was removed, the really important things could be addressed.
What so often happened was that people went through the motions. They did fast, but it didn’t seem to lead to any positive action. The fasting was an end in itself. And we know that by Jesus’ day, some people boasted about their fasting. Another case of a valuable practice becoming a meaningless religious observance. No one seemed to get helped by all that self denial. Isaiah here indicates that real self denial, real focus, will have some practical results apart from making those who do the fasting either miserable or proud.
Note too that fasting need not just involve food. In those times food took a long time to prepare so going without food meant a lot of time was freed up. Not quite the case today in the age of microwaves. Why not commit ourselves to fast for a day from being critical of others; or fast from worrying about money; or fasting from trying to make the house just perfect; or fast from being in a hurry?
Not so as to pat ourselves on the back for such discipline, but to clear space for God to direct us and shape us. Not doing something can be a great way of discovering how we can do something even better.