Matthew 6: 16-18
16 “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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
The third practice of righteousness that Jesus lifts up is fasting. Fasting, like prayer, is often considered in terms of personal piety but most of the discussion of fasting in the scriptures, like here, pushes against a public demonstration of piety. The disciple again acts in private, but their actions related to the community are to embody the justice they are to live. Much of the discussion of fasting in the Hebrew Scriptures comes in the prophets as they criticize the way fasting is done by other members of the community and attempt to reunite fasting with the practices of righteousness.
Both Jeremiah and Isaiah have the LORD rejecting the fasting of the people because of the wider practices of unrighteousness. This stark language from God in Jeremiah will draw protest from Jeremiah for the people’s sake:
The LORD said to me: Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Although they fast, I do not hear their cry, and although they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I do not accept them; but by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence I consume them. Jeremiah 14: 11-12
Even though the LORD commands Jeremiah to no longer pray for the people, Jeremiah does exactly that to intercede on their behalf. The prophet is still in a person where the words and actions are seen and heard by God for the people, but the practices of the people cannot be separated from either fasting or offering sacrifice. In a similar way the prophet Isaiah criticizes the disconnection of religious practices from practices of righteousness in his familiar critique:
Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; the ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Isaiah 58: 1-7
I’ve quoted Isaiah at length because this understanding of fasting also connects with final teaching of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel where the righteous are those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick and visited the imprisoned. (Matthew 25: 31-46)
Fasting is an appropriate practice of righteousness as a practice of repentance (see for example Joel 1: 13-18; 2: 12-17; Jonah 3: 5-9) and is practiced by the followers of John the Baptist (Matthew 9: 14-15) and Jesus’ followers are criticized for their lack of fasting in comparison with the Pharisees and the followers of John the Baptist. Fasting is appropriate to times and seasons, but it is also to be a practice which doesn’t exempt the disciple from their normal manner of interacting with the community. Fasting is not an excuse for oppressing workers or quarreling and fighting. Instead fasting is to be an act seen by God and is to be instead of a mournful act a joyful act for the kingdom. As the prophet Zechariah can state:
The word of the LORD of hosts came to me, saying: Thus says the LORD of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh , and the fast of the tenth, shall be seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful festivals for the house of Judah: therefore love truth and peace. Zechariah 8: 18-19
Matthew 6 is read in churches that follow a lectionary at the beginning of the season of Lent where fasting is one of the practices that Christians may choose to practice in this time of forty days. Fasting can be a challenging discipline to practice but it does not exempt the disciple choosing to fast from engaging in the life of the community or the world around them. The community which practices fasting and righteousness will be seen, even when the individual disciple’s fast is not. They will be seen by the way they loose the bonds of injustice and their fasting allows them to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Fasting may be an occasion for repentance but should also be practiced in joy, for such seems to be the fast that the Jesus chooses for his disciples.