The second reading for today comes from the Prophet Isaiah – a book of complex content and 66 chapters long – yet there is a narrative, meta-narrative if you like, that threads and unifies the whole of the prophetic book. But, today we are privy to only 9 verses, all from Chapter 58.
I think the reason is straightforward why this reading was selected and paired with the gospel reading from Matthew 9. Both address fasting, one of the pillars of Lenten practices and piety. Just two days ago on Ash Wednesday we were reminded: “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites” (Mt 6:16). Today our two readings take on the practice of fasting and ask us to examine our own intentions about following this Lenten practice.
The content for the Isaiah reading is in the time after the Babylonian exile, the hardheartedness that was the root cause of the exile, is still present. Rather than understand that fasting is meant to be a practice that leads to purifying (a major theme threaded throughout Isaiah), the people complain that God is neglecting them: “Why do we fast, and you do not see it? afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?” The prophet carries those complaints into a courtroom-like scene (Chapters 41-47) by which the people will be judged.
Even in the midst of judgment, the Divine Judge offers Hope, holding up the end-result where the purifying practice of fasting should have led”
“This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; Your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am” (Is 58:6-9)
The recurring message of Hope, the message to which Isaiah always returns, whose fulfillment is the “seed” promised in Isaiah 6, appears in the Gospel. Indeed, “Here I am” – and in the presence of Jesus fasting is not appropriate for the disciples (“the servants” of Isaiah 55-66). But when Jesus is no longer with them, the purifying practice of fasting is again appropriate and its goal remains the same.
Compare Is 58:6-9 and Matthew 25. Were we to fulfill what Matthew 25 asks of us. If we were indeed the “servants” prophesied by Isaiah, then our “light shall break forth like the dawn…” we will be healed and our “vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am”