“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)
We are currently studying the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ first public teaching recorded in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus had been teaching us not to live for the recognition of others and had given us two examples: giving and praying.
After digressing a bit to teach us how to forgive, Jesus gives us the third and final example of how our behavior should not be intended to impress other people. Just like we should not give or pray with the intention of receiving praise or even attention, we should not call attention to ourselves when we fast.
People often fast today for dietary reasons (e.g. body cleansing). But the Bible tells us that fasting is a spiritual activity. Christians fast when they want to concentrate on determining God’s will through prayer. We can pray without fasting. But we cannot fast without praying. Fasting without prayer is starvation.
It’s interesting to note that while God does command His children to give and to pray, He doesn’t command us to fast. The only command to fast is found in the Old Testament. This fast was performed by all of Israel once a year on the Day of Atonement [Leviticus 16:29-31; 23:26-32; Numbers 29:7].
But since Jesus’ death atoned for our sins once-and-for-all [Hebrews 10:10], there is no more Day of Atonement and, therefore, no longer a command to fast. Nevertheless, fasting is mentioned several times in the New Testament [Luke 4:2; Acts 9:9]. While no longer being a command, it is certainly an accepted and even encouraged practice.
Back in Jesus’ day people had gotten into the habit of calling attention to themselves when they were fasting. They would look gloomy and even dress in a certain way to let everyone know they were fasting in the expectation that others would consider them to be quite pious. They were essentially putting on a show. They were acting a certain way to get attention. This is the very definition of the word hypocrite.
Not surprisingly, Jesus condemns this and tells us that any such recognition is the only reward such people will receive. This makes sense because the purpose of fasting is to create humility. Anyone who calls attention to themselves for any reason is not humble and, hence, is making a mockery of God.
The true way to fast is to not call attention to ourselves. We should look normal (wash your face). Only God should see that we are fasting. When God sees fasting that is genuine He will reward.
In these three examples – giving, praying, and fasting – Jesus lets us know that our goal should never be to please men. If we seek to please men, then that becomes its own reward. But when we live to please God our reward comes from Him. And certainly an eternal reward from God is far more valuable than any capricious praise we receive from others.
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