Feast or fast?
February 1 — Daniel 1:5-17; Matthew 6:16-18; February 8 — Luke 10:25-34
It seems appropriate that in the time between Christmas and Ash Wednesday our texts focus on feasting and fasting. During Advent we celebrated the liturgical new year — a time of anticipation and beginnings. It is also a time of feasting with family and friends.
When Jan. 1 rolls around, focus tends to shift to a different kind of beginning. Unlike the liturgical new year, wherein we anticipate God-with-us, January brings society’s focus on personal betterment to the forefront. We set goals, taking up new practices and giving up others.
In anticipation of Lent, a time when Christians have traditionally fasted — though our Anabaptist forebears were delightfully defiant in this regard — Daniel presents a different approach to fasting.
Unlike a contemporary new year’s resolution to diet, Daniel’s fast is not meant to make him skinnier. He remains plump and healthy. The purpose of his fast is faithfulness, not individual improvement or denial. His fasting is for God, not the people around him. What is more, his fast runs contrary to the king’s wishes. He rejects royal rations.
In contrast, most new year’s resolutions stem from who we want to be for other people — from our desire to be better members of society. We don’t want to be perceived as gluttons, or as lazy and inactive.
So, as we approach Lent, I wonder if we might shift toward thinking of our own practices like Daniel’s. For some of us the call to be plump and healthy might override the pressure to fast. Some of us, like those early Anabaptists, might draw closer to God by feasting on the good gifts of creation throughout the year, by feeding our hungry bodies and by feeding the hungry around us.
What might Wurstessen — the sausage eating, as it was called when a group of Anabaptists came together in 1522 in Zurich to eat meat during Lent, when it was forbidden by both state and ecclesial laws — look like today?
The story of the Samaritan in Luke shifts our focus, and yet I think it illuminates similar lessons about faithful living. The lawyer who asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” might be thinking about self-improvement, about a checklist of personal betterment that will earn him a place in eternity. Jesus asks if he knows the law, and he gives all the right answers. Jesus tells him he already knows what he should do, then.
But the man presses him. “Who is my neighbor?” he wants to know. The questioner shows his error in the question itself. Asking, “Who is my neighbor?” can easily become a way of figuring out who isn’t one’s neighbor, of searching for a loophole or figuring out how to avoid caring for those one would really rather keep at arm’s length.
“How do I do the bare minimum to live up to the religious leaders’ — and subsequently God’s — expectations?” the subtext reads.
Instead of a straight answer, Jesus tells a story. People often read this parable as if the injured man were the answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” But I am more interested in the Samaritan today. This lawyer might be surprised at the Samaritan’s good actions — that he shows love for the injured neighbor — but even more so that the Samaritan man is a neighbor, too.
And so we are moved from loving our neighbors to loving our enemies, the people who anger or annoy or frighten us, those who for one reason or another we consider separate from ourselves. Who is your neighbor? The person you’ve rejected.
The turn toward outsiders just might be a turn toward God.
Meghan Florian, of Durham, N.C., works in the Center for Theological Writing at Duke Divinity School. She is a member of Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.
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