In this middle section of Matthew 6 Jesus speaks a few lines about fasting. Starting with the 16th verse we read: “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. 17But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18so 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.
Jesus said ”And whenever you fast…” and a bit later says ‘But when you fast…'” That might hit you strange. The whole idea of fasting seems foreign to us today so probably the most important thing to grasp is that Jesus doesn’t say “if” you fast, the line is “whenever you fast.” Christians who identify with highly liturgical churches think this refers to Lenten fasts – forty days of giving up some one thing, like watermelon or watching professional basketball. That’s not what Jesus is talking about.
The origins of the ritual of fasting are lost in history. Several secular reasons has been suggested. One idea is that a person would fast before partaking a sacred meal, the opposite of eating something before going to a banquet so you won’t be scarfing down everything in sight. Another idea is that fasting makes one susceptible to visions. It’s also thought that a period of fasting provides new vitality in a time of infertility.
Reports of fasting are found in the oldest strata of biblical literature and there can be no doubt that spontaneous fasting was widespread from earliest times both among individuals and groups. Fasting, as recorded in the Bible, clearly emerged in response to spiritual needs. We are told that Daniel “afflicts himself” not only by abstaining from choice food, meat, and wine but also from anointing himself; David, who, in addition to fasting from food, sleeps on the ground, does not change his clothes, and refrains from anointing and washing. The most widely attested function of fasting in the Bible is to avert or terminate a calamity by eliciting God’s compassion. The purpose of fasts during wartime was to seek God’s direct intervention or advice. Thus, Israel observed fasts in its wars against Benjamin, the Philistines, and other enemies. Fasts were also reported in the hope of averting annihilation by the Babylonians and by the Persians.
Fasting was also used to avert the threat of divine punishment. God mitigates Ahab’s punishment because he fasted and humbled himself. David fasted in the hope that “the Lord will be gracious to me and the boy will live.” Fasting served as a means of supplicating God to end a famine caused by a plague of locusts and to alleviate the oppression of foreign rule. Passages in Psalms and Ezra tell us that people fasted to win divine forgiveness and implies that fasting is basically an act of penance, a ritual expression of remorse, submission, and supplication. When a calamity, human or natural, threatened or struck, a public fast would be proclaimed.
But fasting is not an end in itself rather it’s a way a person can humble their heart and repent for their sins and this repentance manifests itself in deeds. Isaiah makes the contrast between a fast which is not accompanied by sincere repentance, and which is therefore unacceptable to God, and the true fast which leads to God’s merciful forgiveness: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the fetters of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free… Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him… Then shalt thou call, and the Lord will answer.”
If you see Jesus’ message in Matthew 6 as a whole, like prayer and one’s charitable giving, fasting is best kept private. I guess that posting on Facebook a selfie of how your fasting caused misery wouldn’t be a suitable witness to your faithfulness and righteousness.
Jesus said that no one should know that you are keeping a fast by your appearance. But, according to Isaiah, there are to be practical results: the naked are clothed, the homeless are housed, the hungry are fed, the captives are emancipated and get this, even the manacles on the wicked are loosen. Only then, Isaiah insists, when you call on God, will God answer.
As I look at the history of fasting one of the things what strikes me is that you’ve got to be convinced that things are about to get bad or they are already intolerable. Are things really that bad? Are we suffering a plague, is our way of life being challenged? I listened to as much of the most recent Political Convention as I could stand, aware that, like a hurricane, I’ll have to endure a similar destructive wind blowing in the opposite direction in this next week. What I heard was it’s all bad and we need a political savior to lead us out of the wilderness and build a fortress to provide protection from the invading hordes.
Were we ancient Israel we could expect the leaders of our sectarian state to declare a fast to secure God’s compassion to avert the threats. But our nation isn’t a sectarian state, despite what some would like to believe. Our nation is secular in nature and I expect there would be tremendous public outrage were our political leaders to declare a national fast. But what would be inappropriate for the Church to enter a time of prayer and fasting on behalf of our nation?
I’ve tried to imagine what such a fast would look like. We would have to give up our notion that people of faith worship different gods/God’s. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the God of all the Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Islam and Christianity. If we take seriously our creation stories that proclaim one creator, there can’t be others, maybe just called by different names that opens us up to welcome any an all of creation to join in a great fast.
How David fasted is marked by changing behaviors: giving up delicacies, treating oneself with luxury, avoiding elevating oneself above others. And, with Isaiah as our mentor our fasting would focus on the needs of those who are captive to wickedness, who are oppressed, hungry, vulnerable, and homeless and this compassion even to extend to those who have been found guilty of crimes. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord will answer.”
Maybe giving up watermelon or strawberry shortcake, or dark chocolate isn’t what’s called for. Jesus didn’t say, “if you fast” he said “whenever you fast.” Fasting to avert disaster is on the same level of Spiritual Discipline as prayer and charitable giving. When you pray, when you give, when you fast…