When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
One of the interesting side-effects of this time of forced quarantine is that it is making us aware of the spiritual discipline that Jesus is talking about today – fasting. We could all talk about the planning that we’re having to make in regard to food – its procurement and preparation. But the discipline of fasting can also be meaningful in other areas of our lives. One of the most prominent places where many of us are finding this to be true is in regard to our television habits. Rather than resorting to our usual rote “couch-potato” mode, it’s dawning on us that our mental, emotional and spiritual health can be strongly affected by our choices in what we’re watching. Personally, I’m convicted in the recognition of how much sports and sports commentary I used to watch. Granted, this is a painful confession, but really, have you ever considered how inane sports commentaries like Sports Center and the likes can be? Each hour the talking heads prognosticate about which players will be drafted where. Will you admit with me that you watched literally months of speculation about where Tom Brady was going to play next year, rehashed hour after hour, day after day? What’s more, there’s been the complaining of multi-millionaire athletes about the prospect of playing games without spectators, while myriad front-liners in a wide variety of professions are putting their lives on the line for the sake of our humankind. It is a sobering realization, to say the least. I think Jesus’ words today speak to the need to hone the excesses of our lives that distract us from that which is ultimate.
To be honest, the modern church has not really been a proponent of fasting. In fact, we have little knowledge and even less understanding of this discipline. Richard Foster, the gifted Quaker author and guide, noted in his book, The Celebration of Discipline, “In a culture where the landscape is dotted with shrines to the Golden Arches and assortment of Pizza Temples, fasting seems out of place, out of step with the times.”
That was not so in Jesus’ time. It was a prescribed spiritual discipline that sought to focus our attention on God. It’s refraining from food or other things, sure enough, but more than that, it is, in professor Tom Long’s words, “a form of worship; it is prayer in action.” In biblical times, this was often done in times of societal crisis, acting out lament and submission, praying in repentance and for renewal. The prophets often prescribed that Israel fast for the sake of righteousness. Fasting was and is an important spiritual discipline.
There have been times in America’s history when our country was called upon to practice this discipline. Many are unaware that the Declaration of Independence did not come into being until a day of fasting and prayer had been observed. Designated by the Continental Congress, it was kept by all the colonies on May 17, 1776. Why? Because they wanted to try to ascertain God’s purpose in this most important decision. President Abraham Lincoln did much the same thing. On April 30, 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed a National Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer. In this proclamation he said: “We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to God that made us! It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.”
I wonder if this has been considered in Washington in recent days… probably not, and probably for good reason. It would be seen more as a ploy. After all, the same thing happened in Jesus’ day when fasting became a public ritual rather than a spiritual retreat. Fasting had gotten out of hand, with people announcing their fast with weeping and wailing, with faces contorted in anguish and sometimes even covered with ash. (In some ways, it’s like those who have gone on a diet and can’t stop talking about how difficult it is, and how they ache for one little candy bar. Interesting, that even when abstaining from food, they can’t quit thinking about it!) Jesus’ words today assume that we fast (“and when you fast . . .”), but he says the fast’s purpose is not to express a doleful countenance, but to become hungry for the justice and mercy of God. In fact, Jesus basically tells us that while fasting, we’re to “put on a happy face.”
I have never imagined Dolly Parton to be a spiritual guide, but back in the 1980s, People magazine interviewed Ms. Parton. She surprised the interviewer at one point when she answered the question, “Where do you ever get such a strong character?” And Dolly told about her family and her Christian faith. “I quote the Bible real good!” she said. “What about psychiatry?” asked the interviewer. “So many people find the need to get counseling, especially in the stresses of show business.” “No,” said Dolly, “I don’t see a psychiatrist. I fast instead.” “You what?!” “I fast!” “Is that like a diet?! “No!” said Dolly. “I do it to get in touch with God! Sometimes I’ll… fast 7, 14, or 21 days… I don’t drink nothing but water and I don’t ever say when I’m on a fast — Scripture says you’re not supposed to.” She went on to say that she’s never made a major decision without fasting and prayer. The interviewer was astounded, and so was the public, I’m sure.
Nevertheless, it is a gentle reminder of the strong words of Jesus, “when you fast . . .”
A Time of Reflection and Prayer
- Is there something you might consider giving up in order to spend more time with God? Why did that particular thing come to mind? Pray for God’s help in that regard.
- Is there a vital decision that you need to make? Pray for insight in how a fast might assist your focus and direction.
- What might you do without, so that others might have?
A Poetic Guide for Prayer: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “Feast”
I drank at every vine.
The last was like the first.
I came upon no wine
So wonderful as thirst.
I gnawed at every root.
I ate of every plant.
I came upon no fruit
So wonderful as want.
Feed the grape and bean
To the vintner and monger;
I will lie down lean
With my thirst and my hunger.