Daily Reflection
March 10th, 2000
John O'Keefe
Theology Department
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Isaiah 58:1-9
Psalms 51:3-6, 18-19
Matthew 9:14-15

When dinner is late in my house, my wife and I can usually count on at least one of our children having some kind of emotional outburst.  The style and extremity of these tantrums depends upon the personality of the particular child and their level of hunger.  Often, upon later analysis, it turns out that they have been fasting.  Their reasons, of course, are not religious.  They simply “hated the lunch that was served” and ate only the chips, or they forgot to eat a snack after school.  When these outbursts occur, I try to remind myself that the culprit is low blood sugar, yet even with my reason intact, I often succumb to my own biochemistry and yell back at the perpetrator.  And so our family meal is disrupted, and God is most certainly sad.

Tantrums induced by low blood sugar seem to be one of God’s concerns in today’s reading from the book of Isaiah.  The people fast all day and then “fight” and “quarrel” at the end.  From Isaiah’s point of view, these outburst negate any value that the fast may have had and indicate that the people have missed the point.  The practice of fasting is supposed to bring reconciliation with God and others.  It is supposed to lead one to repentance and to conversion.  For these folks, it seems to have become an empty legal observance, and God is no longer paying attention.

Today’s readings, then, bring up the classic distinction between the spirit and the letter.  The message is clear:  if doing what is required does not lead you to do what is right, then don’t do it, or, at least, don’t do it that way.  Hence, if the practice of fasting leads to dissension and bickering rather than to conversion and to service, then the practice is useless.  And so the scriptures remind us today, as indeed they do on many days, that God is far more interested in the disposition of our hearts then in appearance and empty observance.  Sadly, it is not always easy to recognize when we have abandoned the former and embraced the latter.  Perhaps Matthew’s gospel offers us a way to discern.  We, like the disciples, are invited to pay attention to the presence of Jesus in our midst.  As we go about our religious lives we should ask:  have I, even though my observance is sound, forgotten that the groom is near at hand?

Still, maybe the solution to our infidelity is simpler:  eat a snack.

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