SynopsisIn the previous passage, Jesus had discussed prayer, contrasting how you should pray with examples of how you shouldn’t. In the passage before that, he discussed doing good deeds, and gave examples of bad ways of trying to do good deeds. In both cases, Jesus was chastising people who do good things just to be seen, instead of having a proper heart in doing them, and in this passage, he continues on this theme, to talk about fasting.
The people who do it the wrong way are making it obvious that they’re fasting. They’re walking around looking “gloomy” (verse 16 (ESV)), making it as obvious as possible that they’re fasting.
But Jesus tells us that this isn’t the proper way to fast; when you fast, you should compose yourself, and not make it obvious that you’re fasting. Fasting is between you and the Father, and He will see the fasting. Others don’t need to.
ThoughtsOnce again, as with the last two passages, the focus of this passage is on the Christian’s heart, whereas the people of Jesus’ day (and ours) were more focused on the outward appearance. “If I’m going to do a good deed, I’m going to make sure that everyone knows about it, so that they’ll know what a good person I am; if I’m going to pray, I’m going to stand on the corner and pray loudly and eloquently, so that everyone will know what a great orator I am; if I’m going to fast, I’m going to look gaunt and hungry, so that everyone will see what a great faster I am.” Jesus is making his point by talking about rewards; if you do these things to be seen, then you’ve already got your reward, which is the adulation you’ve been craving from your fellow man. But if you do them with a proper heart, your reward will come from God the Father—and the obvious implication is that the reward from the Father will be much more satisfying than the reward of having people think you’re righteous.
Jesus doesn’t explain to us what fasting is, or why fasting is important. He simply makes the assumption that we will be doing it; he says “when you fast,” not “if you fast” (verse 16 (ESV)). Simply put, fasting is going without something—food, drink, sex, sleep, etc.—in order to focus on spiritual matters, and/or get closer to God. I would assume that fasting would normally be accompanied by a lot of prayer; the two just seem to go together.
This isn’t a concept that comes naturally to 21st Century North Americans; the idea of going without anything, for any length of time, scares us. (Or, at the very least, makes us nervous.) There may even be those who worry about fasting from a spiritual sense—who are uncomfortable with an act that seems like we’re trying to earn our way into God’s good books, and in fact which is seems similar to asceticism. There may be some truth to this—any time we’re doing anything that seems like we’re trying to add to what Jesus has done by our own works, it deserves some thought—but you can’t deny the fact that Jesus is assuming we will be doing this. And, for that matter, did it himself (Matthew 4:1–2 (ESV)). So we shouldn’t throw out the baby with the bath water; fasting is a good thing, which Jesus did and assumes that we will also do. But we also need to make sure—as this passage points out—that we do it with a proper heart.