This is the title of a chapter from Saul Alinsky’s book, “Rules for Radicals.” I’m using the book in a course I’m currently teaching, and I think it also has something to say about today’s readings.
In the first reading, Isaiah scolds those who observe the religious observance of fasting, but do not change their other behaviors. They fight and quarrel, and lay the whip to their laborers. Then there are those who fast, and lay about moaning in sackcloth and ashes. Neither of these, says Isaiah, helps create “a day acceptable to the Lord.”
In today’s Gospel, Matthew depicts a group approaching and questioning Jesus about His followers’ fasting practices, or lack thereof. Jesus replies that there is no need fasting while the bridegroom is with them. There will be plenty of time for fasting later.
It seems, in both passages, that well-meaning people are confusing a mean for an end.
Alinsky simply differentiates means and ends as: “The end is what you want, and the means is how you get it.” He goes on to say that the man or woman of action “asks of ends only whether they are achievable and worth the cost; of means, only whether they will work.”
These are good questions for us in our own lives, and our ongoing relationships with the Lord. What, exactly, is our end? Reunion with the Lord on the last day? Companionship with Jesus in our day-to-day lives? To simply be a good person?
Whatever your stated end, is it achievable and worth the cost? Perhaps too many of us jump into the pursuit of an end without truly weighing the cost, and without fully committing ourselves to accept that cost.
So the day-to-day things that we do in pursuit of this end become our means. Are they working? Do we need to try something else? Or do we need to continue doing what we’ve been doing, but perhaps with more discipline and a better sense of commitment?
If we consider ends and means in terms of our readings, just what is it that the true followers of Jesus wanted? To be with Jesus, of course. To learn from Him, to follow Him. Their choices of action had more to do with finding the means to stay with Him, to stay attentive to His voice and His direction. How could they feed upon His every word, yet not participate in the communal aspect of mealtimes in His presence?
In the first reading, Isaiah scolds the people for treating the fast like an end in itself, not a means to identify with the poor and the hungry, and a means to greater self-discipline and perhaps a spiritual awakening.
So this is an opportunity to look back at our fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday, and view them objectively in light of these readings. Did we treat our fasting as a means to solidarity with the hungry people in our community, or did we treat it as an end to be achieved? Besides the practices of fasting and abstinence, did we make the choices in other areas of our day to make it “a day acceptable to our Lord?”
If our objective evaluation yields some room for improvement, don’t fear. That’s what Lent is for. Lent is our invitation to make each day “a day acceptable to our Lord.”
How well have we done so far today?
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