The Sermon, part 19: Fasting

Read Matthew 6:16-18

“This shall be a statute to you forever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves, and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.” (Leviticus 16:29 NRSV)

man-repentance-humble-humility-sackcloth-and-ashes-rend-hearts-courtesy-of-conrado-shutterstockcom_136670741There is a practice in Christianity to abstain from certain things during the period of Lent. For some, such as Roman Catholics, observant Christians abstain from eating meat on Fridays. There even some Roman Catholics who abstain from eating meat on Fridays throughout the entire year. Others abstain from chocolate, from television, from social media, from food, etc.

Fasting has been a part of religious life for as long as people have been seeking a relationship with God. There are numerous reasons why devoted people fast. Some fast in order to humble themselves and set their relationship with God back on track. Others fast in order to enhance their prayer life. Still, others fast as a way of showing penitence for their sins, or the sins of others. The prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures fasted on behalf of their people, who had gone astray from the ways of God.

Fasting was a common practice in Jesus’ time. The act, itself, also included the wearing of sackcloth, the placing of ash over one’s head, and abstaining from bathing and/or washing the body. In other words, it was quite obvious when one was fasting, because they would wreak to high heaven and look like they’d slept in a hole in the ground for a month! This may seem like an odd practice; however, it was done as a part of lamentation and humility. After all, there’s nothing more humbling than having people keep their distance from you because you stink! That would be a constant reminder of one’s lowliness.

The Hebrew Scriptures had set forth only one time for public fasting, and it was only a day long fast: The Day of Atonement. It was during this day long ritual, to be held on a Sabbath day (or a day of rest), that the priests would atone for the sins of Israel by sacrificing animals in the Temple. The people were absolutely forbidden to do any work, which also included bathing, cooking, eating, etc. The people were to deny themselves in a spirit of repentance.

While that is the only public fast required in the Torah, two other public fasts cropped up in Jewish Tradition. These were Rosh Ha-Shanah (the Jewish New Year) and the Ninth of Ab (which marked the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians); however, it is unlcear whether or not these were a part of the tradition at the time Matthew was written, let alone during Jesus’ life time. With that said, there were days of the week (Mondays and Thursdays) that were designated for personal fasting, and it seems that Jesus’ disciples (at least some of them) were participating in that.

Unlike Jesus’ words on public prayer and almsgiving, Jesus’ words here are to be taken literally, though it is still not merely a legalistic command that Jesus is making. Rather, Jesus is speaking to the heart of why we do what we do. Are we doing it so that others can see, or are we doing it for God and God alone. In other words, when you abstain from meat on Friday, or you abstain from chocolate through Lent, do you feel the need to let people know? If so, why is that? Are you doing so that people know you are “religious” or that you are “holy” or that you are ”Christian”? Or are you doing it as an offering to God who gave everything up for us?

When I was juice fasting, I initally didn’t let anyone know I was doing it. My pastor, family and friends eventually talked me into going public with it because I was successfully shredding off weight and they thought I could be an inspiration to people. I hesitated for a while on it. I wasn’t doing it for attention, but for myself…to prove that I could lose the weight and be healthy once again; however, I did eventually start to share it with people to be an inspiration to them and to show them that IT CAN BE DONE.

There is nothing wrong with publicly fasting if it is being done for the RIGHT reason; however, what Jesus is getting at is that if you are fasting so that others will see you, you will have your reward. Others will see you and they will remark how “holy” or how “religious” you are and that will be that! That kind of attention seeking gains the wrong kind of attention and it is ultimately no benefit to the spiritual growth of the person seeking the attention. God will not be impressed by that, nor will one gain anything more than human approval and/or human mockery.

Again, we are reminded by our Lord, that we are called to be set a part FOR GOD and not for human approval or recognition. We are being challenged to search our hearts and test our motivations. Are we SERVING GOD or are we SERVING SELF? If the latter is the case, then we should prepare ourselves for much needed change, or come to terms with the reality that we are spiritually shallow. Once again, Jesus draws the line in the sand to measure where we are standing. May we acknowledge the truth, and adjust our position if need be.

“Start the practice of self-control with some penance; begin with fasting.” – Mahavira

Lord, thank you for the spiritual discipline of fasting. Help me to be set apart for you, and you alone, in all that I do. Amen.

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