46- THE KIND OF FASTING GOD WANTS

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Thomas and Matthew, the messengers sent by the prophet John from the prison cell of Machaerus, stayed in my house. Many people came that afternoon. We were all anxious to hear their news. Later, at night, the group stayed for dinner. With crossed legs, we sat on the mat spread on the floor while we waited for Salome to bring in the soup….

Peter: Hmm! The soup smells good!

Salome: Dip the spoon down to the bottom to get the good pieces of fish!

Salome put a big boiling pot in the middle. The smell of the soup pervaded the entire house…

Salome: Zebedee, old man, mind your manners! Let the guests serve themselves first…!

Zebedee: You’re right, lady… I’m hungry, you see…!

Salome: C’mon guys, Thomas and Matthew, don’t be shy….

Matthew: No, after you. You start and we follow.

Thomas: Ain’t you gonna b..bb..bless the food?

Zebedee: Hell, that’s right. C’mon James, give the blessing…

James: God of Israel, give us food and appetite, and bless this food, amen.

All: Amen!

Zebedee: C’mon fellas, let’s all enjoy a good piece of fishtail, so you too can also lay claim to what everyone knows in Galilee: that there’s no better salmon than what we have here in Capernaum!

Matthew: You better start, Mr. Zebedee…

Zebedee: No, Matthew, no. You start. Not that there’s enough, but at least the soup is hot.

Thomas: No, no, you f..f..f..first…

James: Maybe our guests don’t like fish….

Thomas: Yes we do, b..b..b.but we can’t eat it.

Salome: You can’t eat it?… Are you sick in the stomach?

Matthew: Oh no, it’s not that… it’s just that we can’t eat it.

Peter: But why? Who told you not to eat it?

Matthew: We ourselves did.

James: You did?

Matthew: Well, Thomas and I made a vow not to eat fish nor anything that comes from the sea if we got back safe and sound to Judea after this trip.

Thomas: We had to make some p..p..pe..p..enitence.

Peter: Oh, of course, of course… now I understand… dammit!

Zebedee: Well, man, that’s no problem. You’re my guests. Salome, old lady, go and kill a chicken and hurry…Get some olives so we can have something to munch…

Salome: Right away, old man, right away…

Zebedee: Just be patient. It will be done in a minute!

Matthew: No, please don’t do that, Mam Salome!…. Don’t bother… Hold it please…

Thomas: N..n..nn..neither….

Zebedee: How’s that again?

Thomas: N..n..ne..neither can we eat meat..

Peter: And why can’t you eat meat?

Matthew: Because we’re fasting. We promised not to take a bite of meat until the feast of the Passover…

Thomas: W..w..we must make some penitence.

Everyone remained silent, with our eyes fixed on the boiling pot that made our mouths water. But no one dared extend a hand to help himself…

James: Well, fellas… So… so we can shift from food to something to drink, what do you think?… That’s it, old lady, bring us some jugs of wine to celebrate this meeting and… don’t you drink wine either?

Thomas: We swore not to taste a drop of wine until the p..p..prophet John is free from jail. We must make some p..p..pe..pe…

Zebedee: Penitence, of course. One must make some penitence… Now I understand why this fellow’s tongue has dried up… for not having drunk nor eaten anything…

Salome: Shut up, Zebedee, don’t be rude. They’re our guests.

Zebedee: Of course, of course… and in my house, the guests call the shots…

The atmosphere became tense. With bowed heads, we all started to fiddle with our fingers, or to scratch our beards or even to nibble our fingernails… It was Jesus who broke the deafening silence…

Jesus: Hey, Salome, the soup’s getting cold, isn’t it?… Hmm… It smells so good!… Let me see how it tastes… “The best salmon can only come from Capernaum”… Oh yeah, it’s delicious, dammit… it’s super delicious…!

Jesus dipped the spoon inside the pot, took some fishtails and filled a plate of soup to the brim. Then he took a slice of bread and began to eat just like that… We were all stunned. My father, Zebedee, who was at the other end of the mat, gaped at Jesus’ plate, his eyes green with envy…

Jesus: Can I have a little wine…?

Jesus reached out to where Salome was, who was waiting, like a statue, with a jug of wine in each hand…

Jesus: My throat is so dried up… Ahhh….! “The best wine, the wine from Capernaum,” one ought to say this, too… Serve me a little more wine, please, Salome…. Thanks…

That ended my father’s patience…

Zebedee: To hell with all of you!… What’re we supposed to be doing here, huh?… Are we gonna eat or not?

Jesus: Are you hungry, Zebedee?

Zebedee: Of course I am! I’m already feeling pains and stomach cramps… and what’re you doing, eating so calmly, devouring all the fishbones that you can get hold of!

Jesus: Well, then you eat, too, man. What’s keepin’ you from doing so?

Zebedee: Nothing, but since this guy here has come up with his “one must make some p…p…penitence so that the prophet, John, can be released from prison” then that’s it.

Jesus: Thomas, do you really believe that this fox, Herod will set him free simply because you have refrained from eating fishtail?

Thomas: Herod, no, b..b..but God…

Jesus: God?… God’s already happy seeing you come and go to and from the prison cell visiting the prophet and bringing him necessities…

Thomas: That’s not enough. God also punishes the body in order to p..p..pu..purify the spirit.

Jesus: Are you sure he commands that?… I don’t know, I think you’re imagining a very, very… serious God.

Salome: And how do you imagine God, Jesus?

Jesus: I dunno… a happier one… How shall I tell you?… Yeah, that’s it, a joyful one. A very happy God. Tell me, Salome: what’s the happiest thing on earth?

Salome: For me, it’s a wedding.

Jesus: Well then, God is like a bridegroom in a wedding. He invites us to his party. Then you come and say: “I don’t dance, I don’t eat, I don’t drink, I don’t laugh.” Hey, what did you come to my wedding for? What boring guests have come to my house!

Zebedee: Well said, Jesus! You took the burden off me!

Peter: Therefore fellas, come and get it!!

Thomas: Wait a moment, wait a moment!… It’s not as s..s..simple as that.

Zebedee: What’s it this time? For heaven’s sake, what’s happening now?

Matthew: Do whatever you please. But John, the baptizer, said it very clearly, as clearly as the water from the sea: “Be converted, repent and sacrifice!”

Everyone froze. Peter, with raised spoon. Andrew and James, with their hands in the air, extended towards the pot of soup. Old Zebedee, who had already chewed a fishtail, and was about to swallow it, felt a lump in his throat…

Thomas: If we don’t make sacrifices, we c..c..can’t be lifted up to God.

Jesus: Do you think so, Thomas? How about the trees that grow and reach out to heaven?

Thomas: I d..d..don’t understand you, Jesus.

Jesus: Look, I’m gonna tell you a story that happened to me when I was a little boy. I had sown some orange seeds in front of our house. The seeds took root and the bush began to grow. But I was impatient. I wanted to see the orange blossoms soon and gather the ripe oranges…

Rabbi: But Jesus, my boy, what’re you doing?

Boy: Pruning the leaves.

Rabbi: Can’t you see it’s a very young plant?

Boy: Of course, Rabbi. I’m helping it grow.

Rabbi: You’re doing it more harm. You’ll only kill it by pulling its leaves. Just leave it alone. Oranges don’t need to be taken care of… C’mon, go to bed, it’s already late, and God created night for us to rest…

Jesus: And so, while I slept and worked, the bush grew up to be a tree that bore flowers and fruits in due time…

Peter: So…

Jesus: So, I think the Kingdom of God is like a seed that grows and grows without pressure from us: fasting, promises, penitence… Don’t you think all these will end up choking the plant?

Salome: To my mind, Jesus, this life’s already full of too many sacrifices. We can’t have more.

Zebedee: Yes sir. Let Mr. Eleazar and all the rich men do the fasting. We’ve been fasting throughout the year for their sake. Yeah, guys, dip the spoon into the pot before the soup gets cold!

Thomas: One moment, one moment! I’m not yet c..c..co..convinced…

Zebedee: Look, stutterer, let’s finish this once and for all, because you’re getting on my nerves. Will you or won’t you let us eat? What the hell’s the matter with you, huh?

Thomas: I say t..t..th..that….

At that time, Dimo, the blind man, peeped through the door…

Dimo: God bless the food and all those gathered here. Mam Salome, could you spare an extra piece of bread for this poor creature?

Salome: There’s enough of everything, old Dimo. What do you want? …bread, wine, fish?… Take your pick…

Dimo: Whatever it is that you wish to give…

Salome: C’mon in Dimo and join us… I’ll serve you some good soup…

Dimo: Thank you, thank you… The truth is, my children, I’m starved…

Zebedee: Not as much as I am, old man. But at any rate, enjoy your meal…

Dimo: Thank you, m’son, thank you….

Zebedee: Funny, the outsiders sit at the table and eat, while we are all dependent on what this stutterer has to say. That does it, fellas. I’m going to the pub.

Jesus: No, Zebedee, you wait. There’s no need for you to go. Can’t you see? You have already complied with your fasting. Look at old Dimo; he’s the kind of fasting that God wants: “by sharing your food with the hungry and receiving the homeless into your house” …God doesn’t want us to starve, he wants us to struggle so that others won’t be hungry. This is what the prophet and the rest of the prophets preached. Am I not right, Thomas?

Thomas: Well, it’s b…b..be..because…

Peter: So, why don’t we all help ourselves to the food now?

This time, everybody dipped the spoon into the big pot. Jesus had another serving of the soup for that day, he had worked hard and therefore felt hungry. Matthew and Thomas ate fish and drank wine and shared a good laugh with old Dimo who started to tell stories when he was a fisherman on the lake…

*Comments*
In the Bible, fasting was considered a kind of human humiliation before God. It was practiced to make prayers more effective, in moments of danger and trials. The religious law specified days of fasting, during which people should refrain from eating in remembrance of the great national calamities and to ask for divine intercession. Fasting was also done as personal devotion. In Jesus’ time, the practice was given even greater significance. The Pharisees and the rest of the religious fasted twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays. John the Baptist, a truly austere prophet, must have probably inculcated the need for fasting among his disciples. That is why Matthew and Thomas appear as faithful observers of this custom in this episode. Fasting, like other religious practices, was severely criticized by the prophets of Israel. They had become a kind of spiritual blackmail through which unjust people thought they could win God, neglecting what is essential in the religious attitude: justice. In their worship, in the use of incense and prayers, and severe forms of penitence, they sought merit before God in order to save themselves. The prophets protested against this caricature of God and religion and clearly pointed out the kind of “fasting that God wants”: Freeing the oppressed, sharing one’s bread, opening prison doors (Is 58:1-12). Jesus certainly acknowledged this prophetic message.

A mistaken notion about religion might make us believe that God loves us more or grants us more favors if we make sacrifices. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with this. When a person feels sick or is confronted with a serious problem that cannot be solved, when a person is scared, then he or she turns to heaven. Since people believe that their fate depends on God, they seek to satisfy God. Out of these beliefs come promises (pilgrimages, use of special clothes, prayers…), sacrifices (fasting, other corporal mortifications, hair shirts, flagellations…) generally these practices reflect the idea of a horrible God: God must be a sadist who is appeased by our pains, who softens only with our sufferings. This God is not the God of the Bible, not Jesus’ God. Let us remember those idols of stone before which primitive people sacrificed animals so that the smell of blood would pacify their ire. The God Jesus speaks about, the God he calls “Papa” does not want to see us suffering and scared; he wants to set us free, he understands and waits for us. He is a God who cannot be bought, who wants us to love him. He only asks justice and humility from us: He does not want us to feel superior nor inferior to anyone. (Mic 6:8).

In order to rid Thomas and Matthew and the rest of this commercial concept of merit in order to win God, Jesus tells the parable of the seed that grows alone. It is a way of telling us to be humble, that salvation does not depend on us. We go to sleep peacefully, with the assurance that God watches over our lives. This is not in contradiction with the work that God entrusts to us to change the course of history. Our work is an indispensable complement. We need to work, but not to the point of exhausting one’s self, trusting that God is most concerned that we succeed in our work. To avoid egoism, we must not worry about our fate as much as we do about the fate of our brothers and sisters.

In the first Christian community, the practice of fasting was accepted as a preparation for the selection of Church leaders (Acts 13:2-3). Fasting is not mentioned in any of the letters of the apostles. Later, through the centuries in Christian civilization, the custom was imposed. One must take into account that fasting was a common practice in many Oriental religions, as a form of hygienic measure or health practice. It is believed that fasting once a week could be beneficial for the body. A lot of doctors recommend this practice even today. Abstinence (refraining from eating meat and substituting fish instead) a practice that has persisted to the present time, traces its origin more to the economic rather than the religious aspect. In the XII century, great quantities of salted fish were marketed; the fish were stored in the monasteries which had the monopoly of this product. From here came the religious law of abstinence. These are only two examples, indicating that we must always analyze and try to find out how these practices of penitence came about. Not one of them can be traced to Jesus. The message of the gospel is demanding, but not in this respect. It demands justice, equality, and freedom. Jesus brings out God’s mercy for the sinners and his special affection for the oppressed, never his fastidiousness with respect to merits that we can do. Jesus was a joyful man who was accused of being a wine drinker and a glutton by those who engaged in fasting. Jesus told us that the Kingdom of God was like a banquet, a wedding and a feast. Yes, and this is what is authentically Christian.

(Mt 9:14-17; Mk 2:18-22 and 4:26-29; Lk 5:33-39)

46- THE KIND OF FASTING GOD WANTS

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