Sermon on the Mount - Fasting

(Matthew 6:16-18)

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Sermon on the Mount, Sermon on the Mount (Bible Study)

  • After the interlude of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus returns to the hypocritical practices of the religious leaders.
  • This time it’s about fasting, the third tenet of the Jewish religion.
  • The word for fasting means “deny yourself.”
  • The Day of Atonement is the only time the law requires Jews to fast.
  • Nonetheless, fasting, like the other pious activities, has become a regular feature of Jewish devotion.
  • Publicly, people might fast for national causes – threats of war, disasters, bountiful crops, etc.
  • Privately, there are several reasons for fasting.
  • People might prepare for some great event – Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness.
  • People might fast during a time of mourning.
  • People might fast to discern God’s direction – Paul fasted for three days following his conversion.
  • Pharisees are typically known to routinely fast twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays.
  • Jesus does not say, “Don’t fast.” He says, “When you fast...”
  • “Don’t look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting.”
  • The word for “disfigure” means to make one’s face unrecognizable.
  • Here, the word “hypocrite” not only connects this admonition with the previous two of prayer and almsgiving, but it also describes what actors do.
  • They make their faces unrecognizable with makeup or masks.
  • Typically, when non-fasting people are in public, they trim their beards, comb their hair, wear clean clothes, and put oil on their heads for cleanliness.
  • Typically, fasting Jews do disfigure themselves.
  • They put ashes on their faces. They probably wouldn’t wear any makeup that day. They probably didn’t comb their hair.
  • Sometimes they’d cover themselves with flour. Then they’d go out and make sure everyone saw them.
  • Imagine being next to a person who is all covered with flour. You’d notice that.
  • Jesus’ warning is based on the fact that the religious leaders usually do this to “show men they are fasting.”
  • It is true that people who are genuinely fasting might practice some self-abasement and also not do some of these things.
  • And the argument could be made that a grave or pious look could attest to the seriousness of religious devotion; and, sometimes, that is the more appropriate response.
  • But the motivation is important. You wouldn’t expect to see a fasting person participating in some very secular situation. That is what’s at stake in this passage.
  • Motivation is important; it can’t be a performance.
  • If it is just a performance, Jesus says, “I tell you the truth they have received their reward in full.”
  • “I tell you the truth” gives it solemnity.
  • So Jesus says, “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen.”
  • One might ask, “Isn’t that a performance?”
  • Look at it this way, if people are fasting, if they’re being noticed by God, that should provide an inner joy that makes them very, very happy.
  • The Father is not impressed by outward demeanor.
  • He adds, “Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
  • The verbal connections among these three examples of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting are obvious.
  • They all mention hypocrites who are identified, who act erroneously, and who are rewarded in full.
  • In contrast is the emphatic, “But when you....”
  • These things are to be done — but in secret, before a Father who is unseen, and He will reward us.
  • Such repetition is an example of very purposeful writing. There is an important point being made, and Matthew wants us to get it.
  • Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving should be private.
  • That’s the point Matthew wants us to get.

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