Moreover, when you fast, do not look gloomy as the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so that they may appear to men to be fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Mt 6:16-18).
These were the first words that Jesus spoke concerning fasting during His ministry. At the time, fasting was a common practice among the religious leaders of the Jewish culture, and thus, it was only natural that He would explain fasting in reference to the disciples’ response to His lordship in their lives. And since it was common for all religious leaders to lead in the behavior of fasting, there would later come some complaints as to why Jesus’ disciples did not fast during His ministry (See Mt 9:14,15). But in the Sermon on the Mount in this context, Jesus wanted to establish some behavioral principles that should later characterize the fasting of His disciples.
The statements that Jesus made here in reference to fasting should be considered in the context of His introductory statement concerning prayer that He previously made in the text: “And when you pray …” (Mt 5:5). Jesus assumed that His disciples would pray. Prayer would be a part of their lives as His disciples. It was not “if” they prayed, but “when” they prayed. They would be a discipleship that continued to lay their requests before God (1 Th 5:17). There was no need, therefore, to command prayer, as there was no need to command fasting. It was simply something that His disciples would do as His disciples.
With almost the same statement that Jesus used to introduce prayer, He also introduced fasting: “Moreover, when you fast ….” It was not “if” the disciples would fast, but “when” they would fast. Jesus assumed that His disciples would in the future fast as a part of their discipleship. Fasting would be the natural response of those who would respond to His lordship.
Since this specific teaching of Jesus on fasting took place early in His ministry, we must assume that His disciples were somewhat confused concerning the traditional manner of fasting that was common among religious leaders. The religious leaders had established a traditional schedule and manner of fasting. The Pharisees fasted twice a week, once on Monday and again on Thursday (Lk 18:12). They had also established an outward appearance of fasting that would identify to the public that they were in a fast. Jesus explained that they “disfigure their faces so that they many appear to men to be fasting” (Mt 6:16). We would assume, therefore, that Jesus gave His instructions on fasting in this context in view of the concern of some among His disciples who saw the hypocrisy of the religious leaders in their fasting.
Since fasting would be the natural response of those who would seek to depend on God’s work in their lives, then Jesus in this context seeks to enjoin on His disciples some simple instructions concerning fasting. The Jewish religious leadership often let their hair go uncut when they had lengthy fast. They would put ashes on their heads and show a disfigured face in order to be publicly identified to be in a fast. But none of this behavior would be characteristic of His disciples when they were in a fast.
The contemporary religious leaders’ emphasis on fasting was not primarily to plea for God to work in their lives, but to manifest the meritorious performance of fasting as a religious rite. By an outward show they sought to lead the people to fast regularly. However, by fasting in such a manner, and for such purposes, the only reward they received for their fasting was the praise of men. Their outward show in fasting nullified God’s response to their requests. They were perceived by the public to be spiritually minded because they put on a “fasting show.” What they forgot was that in fasting one must focus on the inner self, not on an outward portrayal of a legal code of religiosity. They nullified the purpose for fasting by their theatrical performances in fasting.
One fasts in order to take his or her mind off the physical needs of the body in order to focus on the spiritual needs of the inner man. When the outward man has continuously overindulged in food, it is time for the inner man to overindulge in the spiritual. Obsessive eaters have need of obsessive fasting in order to readjust their thinking from focusing on the physical to focusing on the spiritual. But in this transition of focus, fasting must never become a show time performance. Therefore, Jesus instructed His disciples in their fasts, “Anoint your head and wash your face” (Mt 6:17).
It is not the desire of the disciples of Jesus to fast meritoriously, nor to fast in order to draw attention to one’s performance of religious rites. In fasting one focuses on the inner man in order to reconnect this man with God. By concentrating on the inner spiritual part of man, the disciples of Jesus should give no outward indication of their struggle to reconnect with God through fasting. The purpose of fasting is to humble oneself inwardly before God in order to call on God to work in his or her life.
The fact that one was not to give an outward appearance of fasting indicates that one can fast during his normal function of life. He or she does not have to go to a desert place, but can carry on with a normal life while fasting. At least this seems to be what Anna was doing at the temple. The only time others would know that he or she is fasting is when he or she allows the food tray to pass.
It is noteworthy that Anna fasted in a public place at the temple. But there seems to be no indication that she put on any intentional show of her fasting. Everyone simply knew that this was her personal ministry in reference to the coming of the Messiah. We assume also that she was not the only one fasting and praying for the coming of the Messiah. It is not wrong to inform others that one is in a fast. It is pretentious, however, to expect others to give one glory for his or her fast.
In the statement, “so that you do not appear to men to be fasting,” means that our fasting should be in secret, and thus seen only by our “Father who is in secret” (Mt 6:18). If there is any showmanship before men in fasting, then we defeat the very purpose for our fast. If we focus on some outward appearance in order to manifest the conviction of our fasting, then the purpose of “afflicting our soul” through fasting is defeated. The disciples of Jesus seek only to be noticed by their heavenly Father. In fasting, therefore, they seek to call the attention of their Father to focus on their pleas.
[Next lecture in series: August 1]