A Fasting Meditation (Cont'd)
The Sermon on the Mount suggests that fasting should be known only to the person who fasts and to God (Matt. 6:16-18).
Self or God?
When Jerusalem had been besieged and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C., the survivors of the calamity established as commemorative fast days the anniversaries of the beginning of the siege and of the fall of the city. These fast days were observed over the seventy years of the Exile. As the temple was being rebuilt after the Exile, the people from Bethel asked the prophet Zechariah about the suitability of continuing these self-imposed fast days.
In what is a shocking response through the prophet Zechariah, the Lord asks, “When you fasted and mourned . . . for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted? And when you eat and when you drink, do you not eat for yourselves and drink for yourselves?” (Zech. 7:5-6). A negative reply is expected for the first of these questions and a positive one for the second.
If this answer does not say that what the people thought they were doing for the Lord they were in reality doing (without being aware of it, no doubt) for themselves, then what does it say? Their fasting was as self-centered as their ordinary eating was self-centered. Zechariah suggests that the Lord wanted acts of true judgment, kindness, and mercy toward the unfortunate (Zech. 7:8-10; 8:19). The passage should be considered in the light of the temptation to establish traditions that the Lord never established.
Paul encountered in Colossae people of ascetic persuasion. He asks, “Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things which all perish as they are used), according to human precepts and doctrines? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement and severity to the body, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh” (Col. 2:20-23). Paul spoke to Timothy of people “who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Tim. 4:3).
Should not every religious act be evaluated by its motivation — that is, whether in the ultimate it will please people or whether it will please God? Should not one consider what the basis for his judgment on the matter is?
Seen of People
Fasting was a fixed part of the life of the Qumran people (the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls). Anna in the temple in Jerusalem served God with fasting (Luke 2:37). Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights before his temptation (Matt. 4:2). The Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist fasted (Mark 2:18). The Pharisee depicted in Jesus’ parable could remind the Lord, “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18:12). Cornelius was fasting before his vision (Acts 10:30, KJV). Paul neither ate nor drank for three days in Damascus before Ananias came to him (Acts 9:9). Paul’s list of hardships endured include “in fastings often” (2 Cor. 11:27, KJV). In the storm on the sea, the people on the ship fasted fourteen days (Acts 27:33).
People asked Jesus why his disciples did not fast. His reply was that wedding guests do not fast as long as the bridegroom is with them, but he went on to say that they would fast in the day when the bridegroom is taken from them (Matt. 9:15-17; Mark 2:19-20; Luke 5:34-35). He rebutted the rebuke the question implied by the parable of the new patch on the old garment.
Fasting, popular as it has been across history, is not a commanded duty. No passage of command can be cited. It is a voluntary act of piety which one imposes on himself. There are no instructions about when, how often, or how long it should be done. One has no way of knowing when it will please God and when it has become excessive. Paul hints at abstinence from sex as a voluntary privation (1 Cor. 7:5).
The Sermon on the Mount suggests that fasting should be known only to the person who fasts and to God (Matt. 6:16-18). No person in the first century would have admitted he was fasting for the audience. There were customs of dress and behavior adhered to when one fasted. Jesus demanded that one give no external, visible indication that he was fasting. Though oral indication is not mentioned, would it not be implied?
If I announce that I am going on a ninety-day fast or a one-day fast, am I doing anything different from the people Jesus was condemning? If I make sure that people know how much I have fasted in the past, am I any different?
Jesus has a challenging use of the phrase “they have received their reward” (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16). That is, the motive determines the efficacy of the act. If I let the word get around that I have fasted ninety days, people will react that I am a special type of Christian more devout than the rank and file. Is that not precisely what Jesus was talking about when he said, “They have received their reward”?
When I use social pressure to get people to do what they are not voluntarily doing — that is, when I create a condition where they have to join in or bear the stigma of being a “kill joy,” have I not created a “They have received their reward” situation? Someone proposes that I fast from sunrise to sunset. There is nothing of this sort in Scripture. The idea is borrowed directly from the Muslims. Another suggests that fasting be used as a fund-raising device — that is, that one fasts and gives the money he saves to some cause. Does not this put one in a “They have received their reward” position? That is, it raises money and there in nothing more coming of it. One of the objections I have to the Boston Movement is that it sets up religious obligations that the Lord never set up. Where did the Lord ever suggest that one must have a prayer partner? Where did he state how many hours a week one must give to various activities? A Japanese young man, already overloaded in his school work, was told that if he did not do all the required things he would go to hell. He responded, “Well then, I guess I will just have to go.”
My concern in this meditation is not to decry fasting (or any other self-imposed act of devotion) for the person who wants to impose it on himself. A person might forego marriage; he might decide to be a hermit. My concern is about those who by their actions seem to want all to know that they engage in such acts and want all people to conform to their preference. It is with those who feel that others are not quite the Christians they ought to be if they are not doing the same acts to the same degree. My concern is not limited to acts of fasting. What did Jesus mean when he repeatedly said, “They have received their reward”?
If there are two alternatives the one of which the Lord has said he prefers over the other, it would be a matter of wisdom to put one’s strength, time, money, and effort into the one the Lord prefers. If not, why not?
In the judgment scene (Matt. 25), people are not condemned for failure to fast, nor are they praised for having fasted. The items mentioned deal with their concern for the unfortunate.
Jack P. Lewis