Homily for Saturday after Ash Wednesday: Fr. Michael UdoekpoReadings: Isa 58: 9b-14; Ps 86:1-6 and Luke 5:27-32
Fasting, fasting, fasting! Today we celebrate Mass of the 1st Saturday after Ash Wednesday- the day we all received ashes and entered upon a new liturgical season of lent- of prayer, fasting and spiritual renewal. And the readings this morning fit the spirit of the season.
In Luke’s Gospel today (Luke 5:27-32), the Pharisees and the Scribes are very upset that Jesus “kept bad company” with the Levi and the tax- collectors, whom they regarded as sinners, terrible people, a distinct group and an outcast of the society.
It poses a pastoral challenge for Jesus in his Galilean ministry. He has to prove to the Pharisees that he has done nothing wrong by reaching out to everyone with joy, in a joyful setting, even during meals. Jesus argues from the perspective of a physician who mostly attain to those who are sick and diseased, and are in need of healing medicine. Jesus seems to be saying to the Pharisees and the scribes, ‘think of my ministry in the same way as that of a physician, “I have not come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
It is true that in ancient days fasting was a kind ritual mourning. It was associated with bereavement, repentance and prayer especially during national crisis. Isaiah fasted and walk around Palestine naked on behalf of Israel. Habakkuk stood on the watch for a long time complaining to God. He withdrew to loneliness in demand for an answer from God. It really upsets the Pharisees that the sinners in the gospel instead of mourning and fasting were rather joyfully celebrating with Jesus. The more reason in the following verse 33 they follow up with a question, “why is it that the disciples of John fast and pray but yours only eat and drink.
It is all about abuse of Lent, prayer and fasting that is not in touch with reality. This shows up also in that first reading, Trito Isaiah, which is about life in the new world after the Israel. This post exilic community continued with the tradition of fasting and prayers. Sometimes the community would gathered in solemn procession as we deed on Ash Wednesday, even as we doing it now. This was good in itself, but it also created an impression of piety which was often far removed from the real state of affairs in the community. It imposed a uniformity of observance which disguised the difference between those who were genuinely fasting and those who wee pretending. It generated into self-righteousness, something we too must guard against during this Lenten season.. Religion and fasting that lacks integrity, hope, faith and charity is empty. According prophet Isaiah, the fasting, or prayer that pleases God is that which removes from our communities acts of oppression, selfishness, false accusation, malicious speeches and self-seeking. For Isaiah, whom I agree with, those who fast, must reach out joyfully, realistically and concretely to everyone, especially the poor and the afflicted.