Feasting with God #14
When You Fast
Text: Matthew 6:16-18
16[Jesus said,] “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Fasting, or giving up some or all food for a period of time, was a practice common among the Jews of the first century, intended as an exercise to focus one’s mind in prayer or spiritual discipline, or to punish oneself for sin. However, the practice was often misused hypocritically. Some would fast, but not to focus their minds or discipline their spirits; they fasted so that other people would notice and admire their spirituality. In the text above, Jesus was pointing out this hypocrisy, showing how it really defeated the purpose.
Any spiritual practice—not just fasting, but praying, attending church, doing charity work, or anything you can think of—is not something that a person should do to gain admirers. These spiritual practices are to be done because one feels the need to come closer to God. That’s why Jesus emphasizes, “that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.” In the same vein, Jesus said, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:3-4). When we do good things as Christians, we don’t do them to impress others. We do them because we truly, sincerely, want to do these things out of thankfulness for God.
In this season of Lent, fasting is a common practice. Some people give up meat for these forty days, only eating the occasional fish. Some people give up certain meals out of their day. Among others, “giving up something for Lent” is a common practice, and they forego video games, T.V., internet, sugar, or any number of other things for the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Notice that Jesus does not say that fasting is a bad practice—in fact it seems that he assumes that his disciples will fast. But if fasting is not done properly, one might as well not do it at all.
Think of the idea of “giving something up” for God. Realize then what God gave up for you: he sent his only Son to live as a weak human being, to suffer the worst tortures, to die the death of the worst criminals. Jesus suffered hell in our place, “giving up” the right to stand in God’s presence (as he said on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Matt. 27:46]). What can we give up that would be worth all that?
Fasting is a fine practice, if it is done correctly and sincerely. Jesus explains what that looks like above: “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face.” This is as much to say, “Take your regular shower in the morning, brush your teeth, wear your regular perfume or cologne, and dress as you normally would.” Essentially: Don’t give any indication to anyone that you’re fasting. The only ones who should know are you and God. To bring the focus of your fasting on yourself, steals the concentration of others away from where it should really lie: on Jesus. If we focus on what we do, we miss the point. Rather we should focus on what Christ has done.
Christ fulfilled the law in our place, because we could do nothing to pay the great debt of sin we owed—not even fast. And Christ died in our place, because we deserved the punishment of hell for all our sins which defiled God’s law. And Christ rose from the dead for us, proving that all those payments have been made, and eternal life now awaits us, because death is destroyed. Let what Jesus Christ has done for us be our focus this Lenten season, and always.
Dear Father, to you belongs all praise, honor, and glory forever. May our deeds reflect your mercy and your glory. Lord Jesus, from you have come all blessings, for you and you alone have kept the law. May our lives now be lives that reflect what you have done, because of the great blessings we have received from you, although we deserved none. Holy Spirit, through the Word and Sacraments you continually bring us the grace won by Jesus and the faith to believe it. Let those gifts strengthen us in our new lives, so that we may praise our God and live in thankfulness to you. Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.