Reading Isaiah 58 knocks the breath out of our self-righteousness. The prophetâs words are addressed to all people and nations who claim belief in a God of justice and love. As citizens of this country and as people who carry the name of Christ, we are commanded to listen carefully. Ash Wednesday is a time for repentance, not just for us as individuals, but also for us as a people, a nation.
The words of Isaiah fall on our collective soul like a whip:
âDay after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that
and did not forsake the
ordinance of their God.â
The prophet continues by zeroing in on all aspect of our failure to do justice:
â¢ Serving our own interests
â¢ Oppressing workers
â¢ Quarrelling and fighting among ourselves
How well we recognize all these failings, especially at this time of national unemployment and home foreclosures while the rich thrive.
We no longer practice fasting as the ancient Hebrews did â a fasting that God rejected because it was done only as a ritual by those who ignored the poor. We may not fast, but we do attend church, and we do claim to be a righteous nation â âthe greatest nation in the worldâ is a phrase used across the land.
Yet we allow voices of hate, voices that despise the poor and the oppressed, to populate the airwaves. What would the prophet say about those voices? What would he say about the millions who listen to those voices? How many of us make it a Lenten discipline not to listen to voices on the radio or on television that spew hate and racism, that show admiration for the rich while despising the poor?
The prophetâs words were echoed centuries later by Jesus of Nazareth who responded to the call to loosen the bonds of injustice by the way he lived his life and by his death. Jesus, who called citizens of Godâs kingdom only those who fed the hungry, who gave water to the thirsty, who clothed the naked, and who visited prisoners â not those who made a show of praying and giving alms.
On this day, when we allow ourselves to recognize our own faults, our manifold sins, our mortality, we are asked by the prophet and by Jesus to look at what really matters. We should not feel satisfied that just because we may have followed certain rituals, we have done what is just before the eyes of God.
On this day, the words of Jesus as recorded by Matthew, remind us not to be gloomy when we pray or when we work for the kingdom. He wants us to be joyful. Jesus wants us to remember âthe least of theseâ not as a show but because we cannot do otherwise when we are faced with Godâs demands and with Godâs love.
Above all, in this cultural climate when the very rich are rewarded with bonuses while the poor lose their jobs, we are asked to remember where our treasure lies. Do we treasure things that perish, or is our treasure doing the will of the Father, a will that is never corrupted or co-opted or rewarded with gold?
Oh, let us on this Ash Wednesday wear the ashes with humility and repentance and with a determination not to be silent when the oppressed are ignored, overlooked, or despised. Let us put our hearts where our treasure is â in the love of the One who called us to be Godâs righteous people indeed.