19 February 2019Matthew 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.' (v. 16)
Psalm: Psalm 76:7-12
For many, the Christian faith seems all about rules and restrictions. When I was young, visiting an elderly church-going relative, I was regularly reminded of the evils of card games, picture houses and playing ball games on Sundays. Dancing was, of course, utterly depraved. Curiously, this rule never bothered me. Even now, there are those who are reluctant to engage with church in case they are judged for their choices in life. We are sometimes seen as those with long faces, determined to stamp out pleasure. Ironic really, considering Jesus came that we should have life abundantly (John 10:10).
Here, Jesus criticises those who make a display of their religion through disfiguring (literally ‘ruining’) their faces – they want to look miserable to display just how religious they are. The word ‘hypocrite’ was originally used for theatre actors, who would wear large masks displaying emotions. Note that Jesus doesn’t condemn fasting – along with prayer and giving, it was one of the three important Jewish disciplines. Jesus clearly encouraged his disciples to keep all three, as we find in this chapter.
Jesus was adamant though about avoiding hypocrisy. He was exactly in tune with the prophets. Isaiah had asked what real fasting looked like to God: 'Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?' No: true fasting was like this: 'to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke'. (Isaiah 58:5-6)
So here’s the challenge for me: if fasting is not an optional extra in the Christian life, how should I fast? I love my food, so perhaps I need the discipline of self-denial, remembering that I do it firstly as an act of commitment to God, but also in solidarity with those who live with hunger, poverty and oppression and have no choice but to go without. And, to be joyful as I do it – I’m called to be a blessing to those around me, not a miserable grouch …
- What form could fasting take in your life?
- Are there spiritual practices that would help to deepen your awareness of God and your commitment to God’s Kingdom? Are there friends you could join with in doing this?
- How do your friends and neighbours see your life as a Christian? Does it look like drudgery, or are they attracted by a dynamic, active faith reaching out in love and compassion?