Bible Passage: Matthew 6:16-18
These verses contain the third of a trio of case studies that Jesus gives to contrast the religious practice of the leaders of the day with what he calls his followers to. The heart of the issue is hypocrisy. People are practicing their faith in publicly impressive ways, looking for plaudits from others rather than doing them out of a heart that genuinely seeks after God. In this example, Jesus applies the principle into the area of fasting.
When You Fast…: It is noteworthy that Jesus brings up this area with the assumption that it is something that we will do. Fasting was part of the practice of the Pharisees (they were diligent to fast two days per week) and though Jesus critiques how they fast, he says nothing against the act itself. Fasting has fallen out of prominence in some Christian circles (perhaps due to a misapplication of Mark 2:19) but it is something that Jesus sees as an important part of our devotional life and it is something we should look to recover.
What Is Fasting: Because fasting is often neglected, it is worth spending time explaining what fasting is. In the Bible, we see fasting happen in both the Old and New Testaments and it is when people go without food (only drinking water) for a period of time in order to focus on seeking God, and the time that would usually be spent eating is given to prayer instead. Sometimes people choose to give up something other than food, and whilst this might be a useful spiritual practice in its own right, it is not the same as fasting. There is something in fasting of physical hunger being channeled into spiritual hunger. For those who haven’t fasted before, a good starting point may be to fast for a meal or two, working up to a whole day fast.
Fasting For Show: The issue that Jesus is addressing here is when people fasted and made a big deal of what they were doing to draw attention to themselves. They wanted to praise of others, but if this was why they were fasting then they got what they were after but nothing else. Jesus said that his followers were to present themselves as usual instead, washing and doing their hair and going about their business like any other day. It is God who will see and know, and he will reward. True fasting seeks the presence of God and this is the reward that he gives.
- There will be people in the congregation who have never fasted or who don’t fast regularly. You could challenge people to try fasting for the first time, maybe a meal or a half-day and use the time to pray.
- You could invite people to fast regularly. Perhaps it might be something you take on yourself (if you are not already) and go after a move of God in your city by praying and fasting together.
- Jesus’ point is to challenge those fasting (or doing other religious activity) in a way that is showy and designed to impress others. This should make us reflect on our own practice and where we see ourselves doing the same.