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Matthew 6:16-18 Fasting, What is Jesus Saying?

February 29, 2012

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

(Matthew 6:16-18 ESV)

What is Jesus trying to communicate in this passage?

There were three pillars of Jewish religious practice that Jesus addresses in the SoM.  Almsgiving, Prayer and Fasting.  Fasting was a common part of life for faithful Jews.  The Pharisees fasted twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays.  Their practice was to “disfigure their faces and look dismal”, most likely they spread ashes on their beards in order to look pale and somber.[1]  They wanted to be noticed and to draw attention to the fact that they were fasting.  Jesus is directing this teaching to contrast with those who would act in such manner, to contrast with those who fasted primarily so that others would know that they were fasting.  Thus Jesus begins, “when you fast, do not look somber…”  Like with every element of the Sermon Jesus is drawing the hearer’s attention toward the condition of the heart.  What is the hearts motive for fasting?  Is it to seek God and deny oneself out of devotion to God or commemoration of His deeds?  Or is the motive of the heart to garner the praise and admiration of men?  Would we rather hear from men, “look how spiritual he is.” ? Or would we rather hear from our Father, “well done, good and faithful servant.”  Giving to the poor, praying and fasting are all good endeavors and none of them is wrong in and of themselves.  But each can be perverted and used to steal glory that rightfully belongs to God.

“To use good things to our own ends is always the sign of false religion. How easy it is to take something like fasting and try to use it to get God to do what we want…Fasting must forever center on God. Physical benefits, success in prayer, the enduing with power, spiritual insights—these must never replace God as the center of our fasting.”[2]  This is the key to what Jesus is saying.  Whether we give, whether we pray, or whether we fast, God must be our focus, so we do these things for the benefit of His eyes alone.  If we seek others approval we have made their approval, in essence, our god.

As with almsgiving and prayer, Jesus’ followers could and would practice fasting as an act of private piety. His main concern was their inner spirit with which fasting was performed. They were to be pure in motive as they fasted and not to fast as a means of gaining approval from others.

Ultimately Jesus is continuing to inform His followers of God’s preference for the affections of their heart rather than the public display of their worship.  Those who pursue God, do so effectively by having a pure heart that hungers for more than food and thirsts for more than attention.  The Christ-follower hungers and thirsts for righteousness and in the end gains a vision of God and the abundance of His Kingdom.

Read the Reasons Why We Fast… Here.
Read How Fasting informs our Past, Present and Future… Here…

[1] Dockery, Seeking the Kingdom. 82

[2] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: the discipline of Fasting.

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