Fasting anyone?

Fasting anyone?

From time immemorial, human beings have, for a host of reasons, engaged in fasting. In Judaism and Christianity, people of faith like Moses and Jesus fasted to communicate more closely with the divine.

Yet, in both faiths, fasting has been a mixed blessing. This is clear from the following biblical texts of Isaiah 58:3-7 and Matthew 6:16-18.

“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 that 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 that 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 bring the homeless poor into your house; when you seek the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

In other words, fasting is not a public display of piety by abstinence from food or drink and wearing sackcloth and ashes (traditionally the clothing associated with fasting, mourning and repentance) as it is more engaging in acts of justice, mercy and kindness.

In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches: “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.”

Again, according to Jesus here, fasting is not about public displays of piety—rather, it is to be done privately, without anyone but God knowing about it. The reference to the hypocrites and those who engage in public displays of piety may not necessarily be exclusively Jews who practice Judaism, but may also include followers of Jesus (Matthew’s community, Jewish Christians) who were prone to public displays of piety.

Down through the centuries, fasting was associated with the season of Lent and combined with prayer, the imposition of ashes, repentance, and almsgiving. I find it rather ironic that the very teaching of Jesus in Matthew, which is read on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, is precisely what Christians today are guilty of in worship services—i.e. public displays of piety.

In our contemporary times, fasting has all but fallen by the wayside in the Western Church at least. There may be a few folks who engage in fasting, but in the churches I’ve served, it has been very rare—unless, of course, they are actually practicing Jesus’ Matthean teaching, which I highly doubt. In a culture of unprecedented affluence, food is all around us. Most people find it extremely difficult to abstain and fast. Furthermore, when folks are busy as Neil Postman once said, “amusing themselves to death,” it is not likely that they shall be too interested in the Isaiah 58 kind of fast!

What about you? Do you fast? Have you ever fasted? If so, for what reason(s)? If not, why not?