Fasting and Penitence in Preparation for Easter
Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face: that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy father which is in secret; and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly. – Matthew 6:16–18
In these three verses at the center of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5–7), Jesus teaches His listeners about fasting. One may fast at any time, but the period of Lent leading to Easter was – and still is in some Christian churches – the time when most fasting occurs. It is traditionally a time of penitence and solemn remembrance of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection at the time of Easter.
Three Sets of Instruction
Our text begins with “moreover,” which indicates that the teaching must be an addition to something Jesus had previously spoken. So, if we read from the beginning of the sixth chapter, we make an interesting discovery. There are three parallel segments in which Jesus gives the same instructions, with similar examples, in relation to three different behaviors: the giving of alms, praying and fasting.
Surely then we realize that this teaching about fasting must be a much deeper matter than marking one’s forehead with ashes or refraining from most food during the days leading up to Easter, as was common among the Jewish people. Let us learn more from the verses preceding our text.
“Take heed,” Jesus warns in verse one, “that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them…when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men.” When in verse five he addresses the manner of praying and teaches the Lord’s Prayer, He tells His listeners, “When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of streets, that they may be seen of men.” And finally, in discussing fasting, He says, “When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast.”
Worship in Humility
Through repetitive words and images, the parallel sentence structure and by contrasting desired actions to those done by hypocrites, we understand that Jesus is teaching His listeners – and us – how to conduct ourselves in all forms of worship. We should behave and worship in true humility, true thankfulness and praise to God, with true righteousness of the Holy Spirit. We should avoid that which looks good to others or that which is self-righteous behavior. Jesus teaches us to reject false humility, self-aggrandizement, self-love, self-reliance, self-accomplishment and self-understanding. Such behaviors, Jesus makes clear, are hypocrisy; they gather praise to oneself rather than offer praise to God.
Jesus assures His listeners that God is not fooled by such behavior. He states three times how “they have their reward.” This means that they have sought praise and admiration of men and they have received it. And that is all they will receive.
Those who worship in truth and righteousness, on the other hand, need not display it openly, but rather “thy alms may be in secret: and thy Father…seeth in secret.” This clear connection between the Father and His true follower is repeated word for word in regard to prayer: “pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy father…seeth in secret.” And once more, in relation to fasting, the same advice is given: “appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy father which is in secret; and thy Father…seeth in secret.” God knows the true heart of faith. He sees beyond the obvious, beyond appearance and into the person’s very heart and soul.
An Open Reward
A final repeated phrase is a very comforting promise to the true worshiper and the true believer: “Thy father…shall reward thee openly” (v. 4,6,18). The reward, we know, is not the recognition or admiration of other people, but rather the experience of peace, joy and love from God, our Father, here on earth and once eternally in heaven.
Is it not then clear in our text that fasting is not simply a physical action or learned behavior, but rather a matter of the heart? It is not abstention from food or eating sparingly as a religious observance, but rather a quiet preparation of the heart to observe and honor the Easter Story in its full significance: that Christ suffered and died on the cross for me and all humankind so that we may be reconciled with God, our Father and giver of life, both temporal and eternal. It is endeavoring to resist sin, to put sin away and to travel with a clean conscience in the kingdom of God. That is what Jesus, so effectively through repetition, teaches us here.