“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”
16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
-Matthew 6:1, 16-18
THE FASTING TRADITION
Fasting has traditionally been understood as a voluntary withholding of all natural food from the body for a determined period specially appointed for moral or religious ends. The Jewish Encyclopedia notes that almost every religious movement in the world includes some form of fasting. In Jewish tradition, there were at least 25 occasions when the more devout were encouraged to fast, including the fast of Purim which is still observed.
Under the Mosaic Law there was only, ceremonially, one day of fasting: The Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29, 31). This event foreshadowed the the Passion of Christ (cf., Romans 3:25; Hebrews 2:17). The imagery of the scapegoat in Leviticus 16, is significant in light of the cross.
However, in Isaiah 58:1-12 God specifies the purpose of fasting that goes way beyond a simple ceremony. It strikes a fatal blow to the duplicity of man’s heart. This is not simply some pagan ritual that people do to please God to receive His blessing. Fasting insults God when it is accompanied by godless behavior:
“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
– Isaiah 58:3-5
God then, through Isaiah, redefines fasting. It is loosening the chains of injustice, untying the cords of the worker’s yoke, setting the oppressed free, sharing food with the hungry, providing poor wanderers shelter, clothing the naked and receiving family members into their homes (Isaiah 58:6-7). These activities are what open the door to the morning light, healing, righteousness, the Lord’s glory in their midst and a God who answers their cries for help (Isaiah 58:8-9). God commands them to do away with oppressive yokes, pointing fingers and malicious talk.
It is difficult to read of this scolding of two-faced religion and not hear overtones in Jesus’ parable about the sheep and the goats on Judgement Day (Matthew 25:31-46)!
GENEROSITY, PRAYER AND FASTING
In Matthew 6:1-18 Jesus addresses three practices that are associated with religious practices all over the world: giving to others, prayer and fasting. The overriding question that rules each of these practices is “Why are you doing this?” In each case, if the purpose of doing these things is to impress others, you have missed the point of the exercise.
These are characteristics of your spiritual walk with God that are private, personal and intimately between you and God. Fasting is the third of these characteristics. The principle Jesus is sharing with us is not new and we would do well to listen to our hearts as we consider their place in our desire to be like our Father in Heaven.
FASTING SUMMARY & CONCLUSION
We all are absolutely, totally dependent upon God for all we have, all we are and all we need. What separates the follower of Christ from the rest of the world is that we acknowledge our dependence upon Him and we declare our desire to be like Him. That desire for Him is so strong that discipline of fasting simply places a physical exclamation point at the end of our hungering and thirsting for Him through our pleas for more before His throne. Our desire for Him becomes so real in our lives that we cannot imagine ever walking away. With practice, we become more and more enamored with His presence and, conversely, resistant to those things that would draw us away.
Fasting can be a sacrificial lifestyle before God. A form of self-control or discipline that underlines our decision to be totally dependent upon God. It can mean food or drink or music, temporarily giving up needed things to emphasize the reality of our total dependence upon God. It can also mean permanently giving up anything that hinders our dependence upon—our hunger and thirst for–Him.