“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to see right prevail. They shall be satisfied.”
In a consumer-oriented world, the idea of routine abstinence is, surprisingly enough, commonplace. Indeed it is an industry. It’s called ‘slimming’, and it is among the top fads of wealthy societies.
For those with weight problems brought on by anxiety, inability to control over-stimulated desires or physiological imbalances this is no matter for scorn. But there is still something strikingly odd about the fact that fasting is now a habit of the non-religious and non-poor.
Jesus’ followers were in neither category. And for most of them, to fast was a requirement of the Law. In theory it was about periodically filtering out things that can distract us from God. It helped to restore balance and right priorities. A good thing, indeed.
In this light, Jesus’ own practice seemed slightly peculiar. He did not oppose fast days, but according to the Gospels he was accused of spending too much time eating and drinking with undesirables. And his followers were known for not fasting – on one occasion even breaching Holy Day abstinence by taking synagogue bread.
“The Sabbath,” declared Jesus, returning us to the point of the activity, rather than simply its regulated form, “is there to serve human beings. Human beings are not there to serve the Sabbath.”
This is radical stuff. It tells us that God is not trying to catch us out. Rather, God cares for us and our welfare, and worshipping the true God is what enables us to discover who we are and what we might be. This is the essence of the first two Great Commandments, which Jesus rolls into one.
So it seems surprising, perhaps, that here in the extraordinary collection of sayings known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is… advocating fasting!
However, this is a fast with a difference. It is a practice of discipline in seeking justice in relationships and society, that which we are elsewhere called to ‘seek first’ as part of the kingdom, God’s domination-free rule of love.
The famous King James Bible has accustomed many of us to the word ‘righteousness’, with its connotations of individual piety, rather than ‘justice’, with its unstoppably social implications. But the latter is a better translation. King James’ scholars did not like it, because one of their priorities was to construe God’s Word as a pro-monarchy and anti-subversive force. That, in large part, is how it came to be ‘authorised’.
But we cannot tame God. The subversive memory of Jesus, solidified in the incarnation and passion, and energised by the power of the Spirit is the community of Christ, continually undermines our attempts to domesticate the Gospel.
Every Lent a small number of Christians in Britain join a fast sponsored by Church Action on Poverty. The idea is to live on the minimum wage, and to seek God’s justice for the unemployed and homeless. It is a spiritual discipline with world-changing implications.
What Jesus is saying is that in order to inherit the world as God gives it, there are moments of decision when we need to embrace some things we don’t like and to give up some things that suit us. I was reminded of this last night when I watched a news item on businesses operating a ‘polluter pays’ policy.
The idea is that companies who can afford to do so buy the ‘right’ to pollute the earth from others. If people stick to the rules the overall amount of damage is reduced, but existing business goals are not compromised.
At one level it is a neat solution. But it also favours the already wealthy, and it merely delays the day of reckoning for those whose means of flourishing is fundamentally parasitic on the earth. It is, in many respects, the opposite of the path Jesus commends and offers.
Once again, we discover that the Beatitudes may disturb ‘business as usual’. They ask us to re-examine our choices from the ground up. But there is a promise of satisfaction too.
Hungering and thirsting is not a goal in itself, it is a path of correction and hope. It locates us on the way, in the life and towards the truth that is made flesh for us in Jesus Christ.