Tag Archives: Fasting

Matthew 9: 14-17 The Nature of Discipleship Part 2B

Carvaggio, The Calling of St. Matthew (1599-1600)

Matthew 9: 14-17

Parallels Mark 2: 18-22, Luke 5: 33-39

14 Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” 15 And Jesus said to them, “The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. 16 No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. 17 Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

I’ve been a pastor long enough and have seen enough conflicts among people to know that sometimes the action of welcoming someone into a congregation who is viewed as an outsider can create a schism in the fabric of the community. Sometimes the people who are the most invested in the community will be the ones who tear away when the community no longer looks or acts like they expect. In this continuation of the reflection about what the nature of the community of disciples will look like we see some older groups, like the disciples of John and the Pharisees, who are uncomfortable in the way in which this community of Jesus’ disciples practice their righteousness. The question the disciples of John ask about fasting identifies one of the differences in practice between Jesus and these other two groups of people attempting to faithfully embody their relationship to but the two portions of Jesus answer point to a different understanding of time and the inability to fit Jesus’ merciful conception of righteousness in the established practices of righteousness of either John’s disciples or the disciples of the Pharisees.

Jesus did address fasting in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6: 16-18) and as I mentioned there fasting is often conceived in terms of a personal piety, but even though most translations of Matthew 6 refer to practicing piety before others the term translated piety is righteousness. One thing to notice is the difference in the practice, the disciples of John are looking for a visible practice of fasting, while in the community of Jesus’ disciples the fasting does not exempt one from interacting with the community in a normal fashion. Their righteousness is practiced in their relationship with their Father who sees their action done in private and their interaction with the community in public ways. They may be those who hunger and thirst for righteousness who enter this time in the hope that they will be filled, but not so that their practice of righteousness is seen by others.

Jesus’ answer to the disciples of John consists in two parts, one focuses on the time in which the disciples of Jesus find themselves and the second takes the two images of old things being incompatible with new. In relationship to time, the time is now a time of celebration, like a wedding. Jesus is metaphorically cast as the bridegroom, an image that in both Psalm 19:5 and Isaiah 62:5 use to refer to God’s presence and Matthew may want us to hear this echo. Weddings are a time of joy in the ancient world, a time of feasting and celebration where the community is invited to share in the joy of the bridegroom and the bride. There are times that are inappropriate for the joyous feasting and celebration of a wedding, like the context of judgement we see in texts like Jeremiah 7:34, 16:9, 25: 10 and Joel 2: 16, but in Jesus’ view the time when he is present with the disciples is a time for eating and drinking and rejoicing rather than a time of mourning and fasting. The Pharisees and John’s disciples may view the times they find themselves in differently. They may look at the continued occupation of Galilee and Israel by Rome or the reign of Herod Antipas over Galilee, who will later execute John the Baptist (Matthew 14: 1-12), as indicative of a time closer to Jeremiah and Joel where feasting is inappropriate. Yet, Jesus views this as a time where tax collectors and sinners are welcomed to recline around the table with him as evidence of the kingdom of heaven continued expansion to those previously excluded.

The two images of an unshrunk patch on old clothing and new wine in old wineskins also point to the inability to fit Jesus’ practices and authority into old patterns of piety or old conceptions of righteousness. The way of Jesus is not the way of John or the Pharisees. The forgiveness of sins and the eating with sinners is bound to create a schism in among the religious community. The word translated tear is the Greek schisma where our English schism comes from. Like a wineskin without the ability to stretch with the release of gas that is a part of the fermentation process or a fabric which shrinks and tears away from the fabric it is sewn onto, sometimes the old is unable to contain the new. Yet, Jesus doesn’t try to force this new wine into the existing wineskins of the disciples of John or the Pharisees. Instead for those who are able to receive this new wine he allows them to receive it rather than attempting to patch up the existing movements that Jesus encounters. Perhaps in God’s economy there is a place where both have value and meaning and both can be preserved. As a person who has seen a church go through a schism in the past, I can only hope that those who viewed the practices and boundaries of the community differently still have a place in the coming of God’s kingdom. Jesus will have conflicts with the Pharisees and different practices than John’s disciples, and yet he seems content with welcoming the sinners and tax collectors that have been previously excluded rather than expecting the Pharisees and followers of John the Baptist to join him in the practice of this manner of righteousness.

Matthew 6: 16-18 Exploring Fasting and Righteousness

Ivan Kramskoy, Christ in the Desert (1872)

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.

Living a Godly Life: A Sermon on Fasting

The Temptations of Christ, Mosaic in the Basilica of St. Mark, Venice

The Temptations of Christ, Mosaic in the Basilica of St. Mark, Venice

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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret and your Fahter who sees in secret will reward you. Matthew 6: 16-18

Fasting is one of those practices that during my lifetime has not been very heavily practiced by most Christians I know, but it is beginning to make a comeback, especially among young spiritual seekers who are seeking real and gritty spiritual practices of how they might draw closer to God. You see, we do a lot in this church in most churches to make it very easy for people to come in, to be a part of what is going on. We try to make the music appealing and the experience enjoyable and the seats comfortable and the temperature correct for the bulk of people, but sometimes to go deeper we need to be taken out of our comfort zone. We may wonder if there is something more to this relationship with God, and the answer is yes indeed there is and so I’m going to talk about fasting tonight and I don’t believe you can talk about fasting without actually using fasting as a spiritual discipline and so yes I do fasted, and have over this Lenten period, and I share this not to say, “Hey, look at me and the great and holy things I am doing.” Because it is something that I struggle with, because I know the way I should be living, but often I fall into the very temptations that Jesus turned away from. Yet I don’t like being hungry, of being forced to slow down. I know I too often buy into the societies message that we shouldn’t do without anything and that depriving myself of something is not only unhealthy, it is un-American. “If you are a child of God you shouldn’t be hungry, make bread and eat.” Fasting for me is an act of confession that sometimes I have so much that I no longer value what I have, that the food begins to lose its taste or appeal, that no matter what I have that it is never enough. Now I’m a good cook, a very good cook even and if you have eaten at my table or tasted something I’ve made most people would agree with that, yet even after I’ve made a good meal for my son and I, and even right after I have eaten I can see an ad for Red Lobster, or Buffalo Wild Wings, or Olive Garden, or Applebee’s, or any number of other restaurants and I can be hungry not for what I just ate but what is being paraded before my screen that I should want.  Fasting is a confession that the food I eat sometimes looses its taste because I’m already full and I’m eating because the food is in front of me and so I eat. It is a confession that even though my spirit know s it is not true that I have bought into the illusion with my heart that having more is the way to happiness and by accepting less I am placing my practices and times and treasures where I hope my heart will someday follow. I confess that often I begin to believe that I am entitled to all the good things that are out there and that I no longer appreciate the things that are there. I fast as part of a confession that while I may know that I cannot serve God and money more often than not I am damn willing to give it a try. I know that I may not be worth mentioning in the same breath as Jesus and Paul, David and Moses, Elijah and Elisha, Daniel and Esther but they all fasted in the midst of their relationship with God and maybe just maybe they knew something. I know that in the Bible fasting is assumed, and it is not a coincidence that Jesus says “when you fast” rather than “if”. That there is something about the act of fasting as a spiritual practice that places us in a place where we might be able to draw close to God.

I’m going to invite you to consider something foolish with me, something I attempt to practice, which is in its own way an act of rebellion against the way things are.  And so perhaps the place to begin is a confession: I have fasted, not every day, but typically one day out of the week throughout lent-this is not the first, nor will it be the last time I have fasted, and rather than taking away from life it frees me for life. Now we live in a world with two competing realities: one is to fit in to the perfect image, and particularly for young women but increasingly for men as well, to try to fit into the image of the models in magazines and actresses on the big screen-I am not advocating fasting as a method to achieve a thinner body to achieve some ideal that most of us were never meant to obtain. But the draw of that image is powerful and real, and even I struggle against it. But there is another reality that I think tries to consume each of us, and that is the reality that calls us to consume. We are consumers and the only thing that makes us happy is consuming, or so we are told.

I refuse to be a consumer, for that to be the primary measure of who I am. I refuse to be a slave to my belly. I empty myself trusting that God might fill me, for as Mother Teresa said, “God cannot fill that which is already full.” In trying to follow Jesus, I humbly try to take some of the same paths he did, being willing to be guided by God into the wilderness to struggle against my own bodies desire to eat, not because eating or feasting is bad, but because there are times to feast and times to fast, and knowing the difference makes the feasting sweeter. I do it to enjoy life, not to deny life. I do it because it forces me to slow down for a day, to rest more and push less hard, it forces me into greater times of pause as I wait on God and listen. It reminds me of the injustices that are out there in the world and those who go to bed this night hungry, not because they choose to but because they have nothing while others have far too much.  In my hunger I am reminded that blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled (Matthew 5.6) or even more haunting in Luke’s gospel in the 6th chapter blessed are those who are hungry now for they will be filled…but woe to those who are full now for they will be hungry.

Now this is a discipline that I take and use, it is not for everyone. I don’t fast if I’m sick or if I feel like I am struggling with my emotions. But like recovering after being sick and you realize how well you feel, eating after fasting allows you to savor that which is there. I long to draw closer to God, not to be taken away from the world-but so that I too might learn like God to love the world in its struggles and illusions.  One of the things I have realized is that God may call us away from the practices of the world so that we may be transformed to go back and point to the things that are good. To allow our eyes and ears to be opened to the places where the kingdom of God has indeed broken it.

It is only fair to acknowledge Bishop Michael Rinehart’s post on Why Fast? which made writing this sermon both easier and more challenging. Easier because he said many things I would want to say and said them very well, but more challenging because it was harder to find my own approach to this after he said it so well.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com