16 “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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 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.
Treasures in Heaven
19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!
24 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
Over the last three weeks we have been studying Matthew chapter six and the three acts of hypocrisy that Jesus lifts out. Two weeks ago we looked at how Jesus instructed his hearers to not give to the poor with the intention of being seen by others. Last week we looked at how Jesus teaches us to not pray in front of others in order to be seen by them and praised for our eloquent words and mastery of the English language. Today we will move to fasting, and hopefully I won’t move too fast because I believe that there is a lot of valuable information to be gleaned from today’s passage. You may have noticed that today’s scripture is eight verses long, which is four times as long as some of the verses that I have preached from during this series on the Sermon on the Mount. But I believe that we need to look at the verses on both ends of today’s chosen text to see how Jesus puts an emphasis on doing our righteous acts of piety for the purpose of bringing glory to God and not to ourselves.
Jesus loves everyone equally, but I think that it is safe to say that sometimes he had some issues with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were the most religious, most pious, most righteous people in Jesus’s day. They were the ones that followed every rule in the book. And if there was something that they didn’t have a rule for, they sometimes made rules up for themselves. They wanted not only to be religious, pious, and righteous, they wanted to be uber-religious, uber-pious, and uber-righteous. I don’t really understand the reasoning behind this; perhaps at one time it was for a good reason. I would like to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they were trying to follow all of the rules, even the ones that they had made up, for the glory of God. But by the time Jesus came along, it would seem like they were mostly interested in piling up rules on top of rules to kind of show off to others, to make themselves look uber-religious.
The Pharisees would have had what we call “The Old Testament” as their holy scriptures, as well as some documents that were used as a sort of commentary on these scriptures. Now there are a number of times in the Old Testament where we find instances of people who fasted. And we will get into a little more about what fasting is or could be later, but in the Old Testament days the fast would have been understood as abstaining from food for a period of time. Usually in the Old Testament the fast from food surrounded a time of mourning or intense prayer for God to act in the lives of individuals or groups. But there is only one place in the Old Testament that commands that people fast, and that is found in Leviticus 16. The people were told to fast on Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement.
So these Pharisees, who loved to take a good rule and run with it so that others would be impressed with their godliness, would often fast twice a week. Monday and Thursday seemed to have been the fasting days for the Pharisees. I have no idea why Monday and Thursday, but I assume that it had something to do with Tuesdays being 10 cent wing night at Buffalo Wild Wings.
Luke 18:11-12 seems to capture this in Jesus’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, “The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’” This Pharisee seems to be doing all three of the things that Jesus is critiquing here in the Sermon on the Mount. He is bragging about the money that he is giving and how he fasts twice a week while he prays out loud for everyone to hear!
Verse 16 of our text for this morning says, “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.” Evidently not all of those who were fasting in addition to the mandatory fast on Yom Kippur were simply announcing it verbally at the temple when they went to pray. The others were giving non-verbal clues to others that they were fasting and therefore more holy, righteous, and pious than others. They would look somber and disfigure their face. I picture men lying on the steps of the temple, sucking their cheeks in like a model, eyes half closed. “Look at me, I’m so hungry. I haven’t eaten all day. I am religious.”
No, Jesus says that when you fast comb your hair, wash your face, and go about your everyday activities as if nothing is different. This isn’t something that is done so that other people will see you and be impressed. It isn’t even something that you are to do to motivate others. The fast is supposed to be a way for you to connect better with God. It is a way to take your attention off food and give your attention to God.
So here is a question for you all to consider: Did Jesus assume that his followers would fast? He says, “When you fast…” not “If you fast…” Well the first thing that I want to say to you all today is to confess that I do not make a habit out of fasting. And I do not believe that a Christian needs to fast. Today’s text does seem to assume that Jesus’s followers will fast, but there is nowhere in the New Testament that commands us to fast. The only commandment in the Bible to fast is the one found in Leviticus surrounding the events of the Day of Atonement. So when I talk about fasting today, please don’t hear me saying that you must do this, that you must fast for a certain amount of time. I don’t think that fasting gains you more favor in the eyes of the Lord or anything like that. But I do believe that fasting does have its benefits for a follower of Jesus Christ. Especially when we widen the definition of fasting from just abstaining from eating food to abstaining from any number of things in which we find pleasure.
You can take part in a total fast from food, not eating for a prescribed period of time, or a partial fast, which might be more common. Partial fasts include giving up something like chocolate, dessert, coffee, alcohol, ice cream; really anything that you enjoy for a period of time. You can fast from certain technology like your cell phone or from facebook. And there is biblical precedent for fasting from non-food items. 1 Corinthians 7:5 talks about husbands and wives taking a little break from a mutually pleasing activity for an agreed upon period of time (yeah, that’s sex).
Now Paul gives the Corinthian church the reason for these temporary fasts: He says that they are to take the time that they might normally spend doing these other things or thinking about doing these other things and instead spend that time with God. Fasting is often paired with prayer in the Bible. So if we apply that same line of thought to the other pleasurable activities that we can fast from, think of how much time we could be freeing up each day, every week. If we were to abstain from food for one day each week or to not poke around of facebook for a day or two each week we could devote a lot more time to prayer and service. I know we spend a lot of time just cooking and cleaning up after a meal. And I don’t even want to think about how much time I waste playing on the internet. A fast can be a time to voluntarily give something up so that we can instead fill that time connecting with our creator.
Another aspect of fasting is that it can provide us an opportunity to leave some of the things that we over consume for those who are not as fortunate as we are. We have probably all heard statistics like Americans make up 5% of the world’s population and consume anywhere from 25%-45% of the world’s resources. I know that 25-45% is a big range, but I don’t think that the exact percentage is all that important. The point is that we over consume while there are people half-way around the world and in our own back yard that go hungry.
An important passage that is long, complicated, and very powerful when it comes to this subject is found in Isaiah 58:3-8,
‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
That is a challenge for all of us to take seriously. The kind of fast that God has chosen for us involves not only abstaining from food to connect with God, but to life a lifestyle of fasting, giving to those in need and break the bondage of injustice. Fasting can be a voluntary abstention for the purpose of leaving more for others.
One practical way of doing this is something that Sonya and I have tried/are trying in our home. First of all I want to say that I love meat. I am planning on having a big-old hamburger after the service today. But I know that meat is really only something that a very small portion of the world can afford to eat. It is expensive to eat meat. If you go to a restaurant, what are usually the most expensive items on the menu? Steak and lobster.
Steak is expensive because it takes a lot of feed to get a steer up to market weight. When you are finishing a beef cow or steer on an all corn diet, the steer is only able to convert 1/6 of the corn that it eats into beef. The rest of that corn is used for maintenance of the animal or lost in the digestive process. So for every six pounds of corn that a steer eats, they only gain one pound of muscle.
So Sonya and I are trying to eat less meat. We are participating in a voluntary fast from meat a couple of times a week. We don’t need to have a 16 ounce t-bone every night for supper. Instead we “substitute” a vegetable (I know, it is not a substitute, but we are trying). The veggies are cheaper, freeing up more of our finances to be generous with. And if we eat one pound of vegetables rather than the pound of meat this means that there are five more lbs. of vegetables available for others to eat rather than that corn all going to feed livestock.
Obviously it is more complicated than all of that, but I think that is a part of what Isaiah 58 is getting at. We can enter into a voluntary fast as a way of leaving more for those who are in need. Maybe this means that you will fast from buying new clothes or electronic device. It might mean that you shop at thrift stores first. Maybe it will mean that you will fast from driving your car for any trips less than one mile. With gas prices hovering around $4/gallon, just think of all of the money we could save if we limited some of these little trips and instead walked or biked. I think it would be a great idea to look at how much we are spending now on gasoline and try to walk or bike more and give the amount that we save to our favorite charity. As a country that continually over consumes, we can take a fast from over consuming so that there is more left to share with others.
The last thing that I want to say about fasting is that fasting helps us break the bondage that “things” have over us. As I have noted earlier, fasting is voluntarily giving up something that is not necessarily bad for a period of time. So you wouldn’t say that you are fasting from abusing drugs or fasting from pornography. These are things that a follower of Jesus should never take part in. But there are things that we need to survive, things that are not inherently bad, that can have power over us. They can become addictions; they can become idols.
I think that food is a good example of this. I know that I have a hard time resisting the temptation of having one more cookie or a second piece of pie. We need food, but if I voluntarily take a break from eating dessert or eating all together, it shows that I still have power over my appetite. If I can give something up for a period of time, then it has less of a chance of becoming an addiction or an idol.
Or maybe you struggle to find the right balance with money. We need money and money is not inherently bad. But the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. If you find yourself becoming more and more controlled by money, maybe it is time to take a bit of a break from the world of commerce. Take a week and don’t check your stock portfolio or your savings account balance.
Really about anything can take control of us. Sports, academics, relationships, books, work, television and movies. Again, these things are not bad in and of themselves. But they can control us if we let them, and when they do, they become idols. And today’s scripture warns against living for these things. Jesus calls them treasures on earth and he reminds us that they are temporary. Moth and rust will destroy these things that we make into our idols. And Jesus says that we cannot serve two masters. Whether our master is money, sports, food, shopping, or anything else that you want to stick in the list, if we allow these things to have control over us, they are competing for our allegiance to God.
The New Testament never commands us to fast. But you know what, the New Testament never tells us to brush our teeth either. Just because the New Testament doesn’t command us to fast doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to be beneficial. Whether it is a fast from eating or a fast from something else that competes with God for you allegiance, I invite you to practice the discipline of fasting. Fasting is a way for us to spend more time connecting with our creator; fasting is a way for us to opt out of the hyper-consumption of our society so that others can get a little for themselves, and fasting is a way to break the bondage that things can have over us. Remember that when God came to this earth as Jesus Christ that he gave up everything for us. Is there anything that you are not willing to give up for God?
*Wondering what to do with verses 22-23? So was I. I like what Piper does with this: http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/taste-see-articles/what-is-the-bad-eye-in-matthew-623