“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Matthew 6:16-18 (NRSV)
Jesus has already addressed this main point in two other areas: giving alms to the poor and praying. That main point is that you can pursue status and approval, obtain those rewards, and be judged along with that system by God, or you can be humble and eschew those things, associate yourself with the lowly, be overlooked or looked down upon, and be rewarded by God. The interesting feature that pulls all these examples together is that these are all practices of the faithful, but one group uses the practice to ensure a good situation in the world, and the other group practices them out of obedience to God and a desire for his approval. One group are hypocrites, the other group are believers. One group gets rewarded here and now by the world and judged later by God, the other group gets judged here and now by the world and rewarded later by God.
Jesus makes the same point, here, using another feature of religious life that would be common to everyone. In this case, instead of the flashy displays of “generosity” to the poor or the long-winded, impressive prayers, we have people who are fasting and want you to know it.
These people walk around with anguish on their faces, apparently disheveled, not because they are actually mourning or seeking humility, but because they want everyone to know that they’re fasting.
Fasting is a practice that was common among Israel’s neighbors, and you can find occasions of it in response to various events. The most common occurrences of fasting are mourning and, ironically, a deliberate effort to humble oneself before God.
Is there anything more ridiculous than the image of someone using a practice designed to seek humility as a mechanism for increasing their reputation? It would be like someone buying a Humility Trophy for themselves that they displayed on their mantel.
There are other dimensions to this hypocrisy as well. Fasting and mourning is a historically appropriate response from Israel when she is suffering and sorry for her sins. It is a way to physically lament the state of the nation and grieve over her, and this is meant to make the grief especially clear to God.
So, you can imagine the irony of these people who enjoy status, prestige, and other rewards in the community making a show of mourning the condition of their fellow Israelites. “What have we done to deserve this, O Lord? O, wait a minute, my new divan is ready. O, and one of Herod’s sons has invited me to a feast. How long do I need to fast, exactly?”
But to be faithful Israel is to fast, not for show, but out of the heart. You are legitimately anguished over the state of Israel. You desire to be humble before God. You belong to those categories Jesus has already defined for faithful Israel at the beginning of the sermon. And if you truly belong to these categories, you don’t need to make a show of it. God knows, and it is God who will restore your fortunes.
You do not want to receive your restoration from the present world system and their rewards, because they are passing away. You want the restoration that comes from God – the kind of thing He promised in the Old Testament, of a Spirit-filled kingdom of righteousness, of a new creation that will not pass away and even Death cannot enter.
So, when you fast, don’t make it outwardly visible. For your Father who sees your heart in secret will reward you, and it is with Him that you want your treasure to be.
Like the other instances Jesus has brought up, it is appropriate for us, even well outside the events described in Matthew, to think about where our help and rewards come from and what we do to secure them. Even the faith itself can be a tool for someone to increase their reputation, prestige, and power base. Even the most intense acts of spirituality can boil down to a desire to tie ourselves more closely to a world that is passing away – a world that runs on fame, prestige, admiration, wealth, and power – a world that can make you Somebody or decide that you’re Nobody.
God is clearly allied with the Nobodies. He is building a nation of them with which to fill the world. Get on their side. Become nondescript. Find yourself in the company of people who have no power, wealth, or reputation but whose hearts burn for God’s esteem and His kingdom come. God has not called you to do Great Things for Him; He has called you to be something – to testify with your own life that Jesus is your Lord and a new world has invaded the old one. Maybe no one will ever even comment on your success or efforts to be that thing.
- In what ways do we use our faith to increase our standing with people?
- Fasting is not a terribly common practice in the church, today. Given the Old Testament background, what, if any, might be reasons for us to fast?