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 58:5 (NIV)
We tend to think that those living in Old Testament times had to abide by a set of rules (the Law), so as to be sure their lives measured up. This is what most people did – they sought to keep the Law in all respects, but by doing so they didn’t allow it to change their hearts. Looking at the quote above from Isaiah 58, the prophet gives us insight into the will of God regarding rule keeping.
We cannot deny that the people of Israel were fasting. However, verses 3-4 of Isaiah 58 reveal the true purpose of their fasting – to be seen and to be noticed. The natural instinct of the people of Israel was to keep the rules, assuming that God would see this and as a result they would receive God’s blessing. In Isaiah 58:5 the very basis of their fasting is questioned. It is as if God is saying: ‘Is fasting only about setting aside a day, bowing your head, wearing sackcloth and ashes and about what you don’t eat?’
When Jesus came along he took something physical (e.g. fasting) and gave it a spiritual twist. In Matthew 6:1 Jesus commences a whole section of instruction by saying:
Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
Jesus puts rule keeping into perspective by pointing out that what is important is what is going on in your heart – in other words the true reason for doing something.
So what did Jesus say about fasting? Later in Matthew 6 Jesus says:
When you fast, do not look sombre 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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 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 6:16-18 (NIV)
Jesus says ‘… when you fast …’, not ‘… if you fast …’. There is a presumption that fasting will be a normal part of the spiritual life of God’s people. Moving on Jesus points out that fasting should not be for show. If it is to honour God, then those around you don’t need to know that you are fasting. Jesus doesn’t just say that you shouldn’t do anything to make your fast obvious, but that you should do things that might make people believe that you are not fasting. Most of us would be happy to wash our face, but few of us would want to put oil on our head. Of course, the point isn’t oil and washing, it is about not making your spiritual devotion obvious to others. Fasting, like giving and hospitality should be done in secret, as it is a matter between you and God.
[Archives – click on the icon at the top of the WordPress webpage]