Dear Sisters and Brothers,
People of faith have always wanted tasks to perform to either show or strengthen their devotion to God. Just as you feel good about doing things for people you love, we feel good about taking on a task for God. To show your love for one person, you might mow their lawn or shovel their driveway. To show love to another, you might throw them a party or make them a special gift or treat. In times when we don’t have much to offer, we make sacrifices; that is, we give someone something that we have might have kept for ourselves, as a parent saves up funds for Christmas.
In today’s text, Jesus spoke about one of the ways that people often expressed their devotion to God. It is not so common now, but it is that particular kind of sacrifice called fasting.
Fasting simply means to stop eating for a while. Our morning meal is called breakfast (break-fast) because it breaks or ends the fast we kept while we were sleeping (assuming that people don’t eat while they sleep). The idea of fasting as a religious act came early to humanity because it was one of the few things that even the poorest of us could do. Even a person with little food could set it aside for a few hours to concentrate on God. They weren’t doing harm to themselves because they would eventually stop fasting and eat the food that they had already set aside. In fact, in poor parts of the world, feasts would be preceded by days of fasting or reduced rations to save up enough food for the event.
The idea was that you could bear that nagging feeling of hunger as a reminder of your devotion for God. The pangs of hunger were also seen as being very much like the longing of our soul for God and his goodness. Remember that Jesus spoke this way when he said, “Blessed who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Psalm 63 compared the longing for God as being thirsty in a dry desert. So fasting was an easy thing that you could do, but it took will-power and concentration. In modern terms you would call it intentional delayed gratification.
Healthy people cannot go long without water, but the delay of food by a few hours or even a day is not usually dangerous at all. People lost in the woods or at sea have gone for weeks without food without permanent damage or risk of death. Some people have disorders and sicknesses that might make fasting dangerous, but it is usually safe.
In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, there are prolonged times of the year that are called fasts, but are actually times where people abstain from meat, dairy, and fish items while eating other foods.
In the Roman Catholic Church, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are fasting days, but people ages 18-59 are encouraged to fast on all the Fridays of Lent.
In Protestant churches, fasting is much less common. Our main experience of fasting might be related to hours before blood tests or surgery.
So here is what Jesus said in Matthew 6:16-23:
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
So, if we fast, we should do it out of devotion to God and not as a way of impressing others. The reference to putting oil on your head and washing your face was just a normal part of daily hygiene, so you would not look any different than usual.
Fasting can be a rewarding spiritual practice, but it can take many forms. One person might push breakfast later and use the earlier time for prayer. Another person may fast for part of a day to help them be mindful of the blessings they receive when they eat their next meal. Another person may abstain from eating certain foods for a while as a way to set the days apart (like the days of Lent).
This passage on fasting naturally flows into the next words of the Sermon on the Mount:
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
So, we are encouraged to set the food aside while we fast, but its purpose is to be eaten and be shared and not to rot on the shelf. Jesus is saying that our daily bread is a sign of blessing, but the practice of saving up things for another day has limited use. The material things of life are vulnerable to loss in ways that spiritual gifts are not: Food can spoil, fabric will fail, and objects can break or be stolen.
We can benefit from delaying a meal for a few hours or a day, but we do so knowing that food is always a temporary thing and that depending upon “daily bread” from God is always a matter of trust. We are also encouraged to treasure the things that last instead of things that come and go. A single loaf of bread is good, but it can’t last forever. A favorite piece of clothing will eventually be unfit to wear. Houses can be burnt down or washed away in a flood. Money and jewelry can be stolen.
The treasures that can’t be stolen are faith, hope, and the eternal love of God. Even your life is not yours to keep because age, sickness, and injury can end it. But your treasure in heaven is the love of God that wills you to live forever with him.
“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
When we talk poetically, we often compare eyes to windows more than lamps, but Jesus is saying that we need to start seeing what leads to light and life as opposed to things that lead us to shadows and death. Fasting is seen as a good practice because it reminds us that material things (like food) are not what is essential to our spirits. What this world considers “real” like real estate and other commodities should not be our treasures because we can lose them. If we treasure faith, hope, and love, those treasures are ours forever. One kind of treasure leads to daylight while the other dwindles in the shadows.
Question to Ponder: What is the longest time you have ever gone without eating?