Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
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 Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)
- Traditionally, Lent is a season of fasting and repentance. But fasting as a spiritual practice is not as widespread as it once was. People in our religious context do not generally go out of their way to demonstrate that they are fasting.
- Perhaps this is partially due to our relationship with food. Ironically, as our society has become less dependent on agriculture and food production and less prone to famine, we no longer see hunger as something to be conquered or endured. The Great Depression, our last period of widespread hunger, was nearly a century ago.
- It may also have something to do with the way we think of hunger as a poverty issue. It is unimaginable to many of us that the wealthy, too, could starve. But that is exactly what happens in famine. Class doesn’t protect you. You can’t eat money. There’s a story about Joseph in Genesis (click the link to read it), when the famine got so bad that even the wealthy nobility became Pharaoh’s slaves because of hunger.
- Fasting is a way of reminding oneself of one’s radical dependence on rain, on insects, on fertility, on God. Hunger is not a poverty issue, but a human issue. It is a way to focus on God and remind us of our solidarity with each other, including those who are chronically hungry. You are not convincing God of your dedication, but transforming yourself and changing your perspective. You are enhancing your gratitude.
- Fasting, like sabbath rest, puts us at odds with capitalism.
- Some pundits, eager to judge, say that the whole season of Lent is problematic. They say people should not talk about what they are giving up for Lent, or wear ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday, because of these verses right here. I receive that critique, but need to point out how different our context is. Most Americans today don’t even know what fasting is.
- In South Korea, it is a different matter. Because of the Korean War, the memory of famine is more recent there. Today, entire retreat centers are devoted to fasting prayer. The cafeterias even have special meals for those ending a week-long fast to gently wake up their digestive system.
- To place these verses in context, look at the word “whenever.” Like whenever you pray, and whenever you give to the poor. These are regular acts of devotion that people did all the time, not just during a season when it was expected. This is why I believe criticism of Lenten practices is overblown. (In fact, some criticism is just another way of performing one’s religiosity, of being a hypocrite).
- A few chapters after this, students of John the Baptist approach Jesus and ask, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” (9:14). They are making a comparison: “Jesus, your disciples don’t seem as religious as we are.” Jesus replies that the wedding guests shouldn’t fast while the bridegroom is with them. But who knows? Maybe Jesus’s disciples were fasting, but simply were not “disfiguring their faces?”