Thus Says the Lord: The Fast I Choose is to Share Bread with the Hungry

Probably the most common activity Orthodox Christians today associate with Great Lent is fasting from food.  One can wonder why simply denying oneself food got emphasized in Orthodox spirituality more than denying oneself food in order to give charitably the food to the needy, especially if one thinks about the teachings of Christ that in giving food to the hungry we give it to Him.  “When did we see you hungry Lord and not feed you?”  (Matthew 25:44)   It doesn’t seem to me that our Lord ever taught us simply to refuse God’s bounty, but He did teach us to act in love toward one another.   We deny ourselves in love – meaning we deny ourselves in order to turn our attention to the need of others.  Denying ourselves food and then ignoring the need of the hungry is hardly commandment of Christ!  If Great Lent consists only of abstaining from certain foods, that alone does not fulfill the commandments of Christ that we love one another.

All of us Orthodox also are well aware of God’s own teachings on fasting in Isaiah 58:3-11:    

“’Why have we fasted, and thou see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers.  Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with wicked fist. Fasting like yours this

Prophet Isaiah

day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD?  Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? … If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,  if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.”

The fast that the Lord commands fulfills the teachings of Jesus Christ our Lord in the Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46).

My guess as to why our Great Lent ended up being so totally focused on giving up of food is that once Great Lent lost its catechetical nature, it became an ascetical endeavor.  It fell under the purview of monks – the ascetics of the church.  Monastics, by tradition, are those who have given up everything to follow Christ.  Because they already gave up everything to follow Christ (embraced voluntary poverty) they could hardly emphasize giving to the poor and needy as a spiritual endeavor.  Instead they pushed their asceticism and self denial to a new level – to what they still had and needed – food.   So Great Lent under monastic influence became a mostly food fasting endeavor.  The charitable part of fasting was put on the back burner as they technically had nothing to give and so all they could do was further deny themselves through food fasting.

Great Lent is a period of spiritual disciple in which we are learning how to be disciples of Christ.  The discipline of self denial is not to help us forget others as well, but to deny the self in order to love God and neighbor.  Great Lent is the time to learn the difference between self-love and the love that Christ demonstrated to us, taught us, and then commanded us to love others as He has loved us.  We don’t need to learn how to be monks, we who have not followed the monastic path need to learn how to be Christians in our daily lives.  This means we must learn how to love the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters or face being judged like the goats at His left hand and cast into the eternal fire prepared not for humans but for Satan (Matthew 25:41-43).

Becoming a disciple means becoming more human – loving, being generous, charitable, merciful, giving and forgiving.  It doesn’t mean becoming more food oriented, or concentrating more of one’s self and salvation.  As St. John Cassian said, “He who does something good and expects a reward is serving not God but his own will.”    If we fast for our own salvation, we are serving ourselves.  If we fast as God wishes us to fast (Isaiah 58), we fast for the good of others – to love and serve them, rather than ourselves.

Bonobo Mother & Child

I was very struck by a recent scientific study done with Bonobos.  Bonobos are chimpanzees who happen to be genetically our closest relative in the animal kingdom.  Whether or not one accepts the theory of evolution, it is still a fact that Bonobo and human DNA is said to be 98.4% identical.  Bonobos in this study showed an amazing willingness to voluntarily share food with other Bonobos.  Placed in a cage by themselves with their favorite foods, Bonobos will go out of their way to unlock doors and allow another Bonobo without the food to come in and share the favored foods.  You can watch a video showing this at Bonobos Opt to Share their Food.   There is a sentiment expressed in some Orthodox hymns that all creation obeys God, except for us humans, or more personally and not pointing the accusing finger at others, except for me.  This Great Lent, we would do well to imitate the Bonobos and share our food and our blessings with those less fortunate and in need – the least of the brothers and sisters of Christ.  If chimps can get it right, so can we.  We are after all supposed to be reason endowed sheep and capable of behaving morally.  Perhaps the Bonobo study will show that altruism is in fact in our genes, and that we have to go against human nature to be stingy and begrudge the hungry food.  Perhaps our genes really do precede the Fall, and embedded in them is the goodness which God originally placed in and saw in all creation.

See also my blog Fasting: Curbing the Desires of the Heart

4 thoughts on “Thus Says the Lord: The Fast I Choose is to Share Bread with the Hungry

  1. Mary

    Could you give more details/slash on the icon above entitled mercy To Christ. I have never seen this icon and can find no info on it.

    1. Fr. Ted

      The icon is based on Matthew 25:31-46 in which Christ says in as much as we have or have not fed, visited, housed, clothed the least of His brothers or sisters, we have or have not done it to Him. The icon shows people ministering to Christ implying exactly that when we minister to another person – feeding them, giving them drink or clothes, visiting them in prison or in their time of sickness – we do it to Christ Himself

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