11 August 2016

Matthew 6:16-18

“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.” (vv. 16-18)

Psalm: Psalm 133


Matthew's third example of righteous living (after almsgiving and prayer) is in reference to fasting. It is interesting to note that the Gospels do not contain many references to Jesus fasting, apart from the tempting in the desert (Matthew 4). In Matthew 9:14, the disciples of John ask Jesus why his disciples do not fast. Jesus' response seems to suggest that there is no need to fast when he is present but "the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast" (Matthew 9:15). Yet in this passage the instruction is clear: "but when you fast …". Jesus assumes his followers will participate in fasting.

At the time when Matthew's Gospel was written the Jewish people were well known for their traditions of fasting. Whilst many of the world's religions include fasting from food, this has lapsed within the Christian tradition. As Western Christians many of us are not used to being told what to eat or abstain from. Fasting from food, or indeed any kind of abstinence, does not fit easily within a cultural context where self-fulfilment has priority and self-denial is perceived so negatively.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in The Cost of Discipleship (SCM Press, 2015), suggests that fasting and indeed various forms of abstinence are an important feature of being a disciple of Christ: "Strict exercise of self-control is an essential feature of the Christian's life. Such customs have only one purpose - to make the disciples more ready and cheerful to accomplish those things which God would have done". Bonhoeffer echoes the words of verse 17, the instruction to put oil on your head and wash your face, referring to a cheerful as opposed to dismal appearance. Whilst we might see the need to fast as bringing benefit to our physical bodies we need to rediscover a form of fasting (abstaining) which enables us to focus on God. In the hyper-connected world of social media, it becomes increasingly difficult for some people to resist displaying their activities and their abstinences as trophies to whomever is watching. Jesus' invitation is to a depth of spirituality without the need for the praise of others. In our world with very few secrets, abstaining could recover a sense of intimacy with the God revealed to us in Christ, in whom we are truly and fully known.

To Ponder

  • From what might you benefit abstaining?
  • At what times (if any) in your life have you felt close to God?
  • What do you learn from those occasions of closeness to God?
  • What could you do now to re-connect and refocus on God? 

Bible notes author

Deacon Eunice Attwood

Eunice is a Methodist deacon. She is a tutor in Pastoral Theology at the Queen's Foundation in Birmingham, and a member of the Centre for Ministerial Formation since 2012.

Share this