The Practice of Fasting
Text: Matthew 6 : 1 - 18
The practice of fasting was something taught in the Mosaic Law. The Day of Atonement was one of special religious celebrations God gave to Israel (Cf. Leviticus 16:29-34; 23:26-32; Numbers 29:7-11). Let us ponder over the words of the following text.
“And the Lord spoke to Moses saying:
‘Also the tenth day of this seventh month
shall be the Day of Atonement. It shall be
a holy convocation for you; you shall afflict
your souls; and offer an offering made by fire
to the Lord. And you shall do no work on that
same day, for it is the Day of Atonement, to
make atonement for you before the Lord your God.'”
While the word “fasting” is not specifically mentioned in the text, the practice of The Day of Atonement, involved fasting. The idea of fasting is drawn from the idea of “affliction of the soul”.
EXPANSION OF THE CONCEPT OF FASTING
The concept of fasting as a religious discipline was expanded further in later years. The prophet Isaiah had to deal with this problem in his time. Israel lodged a complaint against the Lord for not paying attention to the fact that the nation had practised fasting.
” ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen?
Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice? ‘ ”
Note the parallelism used in this text. Affliction of the soul and fasting were offered as parallel deeds.
The practice of fasting was noted by the Lord. He made this observation.
“Is it a fast that I have chosen,
A day for a man to afflict his soul?
Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush,
And to spread out sackcloth and ashes?
Would you call this a fast,
And an acceptable day to the Lord?
The Lord noted that Israel had indeed practised fasting along very ritualistic lines. There was paying attention to all the physical aspects of the fast. There was the appropriate bowing of the head, the wearing of sackcloth, the casting of ashes on the head. However, does the physical act of fasting constitute the true idea? The Lord had this to say.
“In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure,
And exploit all your labourers.
Indeed you fast for strife and debate,
And to strike with the fist of wickedness.
You will not fast as you do this day,
To make your voice heard on high.”
Israel went through the motion of fasting as a ritualistic practice. However, those who fasted continued with their wicked deeds. They strove with each other. They victimized workers and exploited them! Such deeds cancelled the validity of the practice of fasting.
The post-exilic prophet Zechariah also had to deal with the problem of ritualistic fasting. The exiled Jews had extended the concept of fasting with weeping (Cf. Zechariah 7:1-7). Zechariah had to rebuke the people with very strong words too. There was ritualistic fasting, but the lives of the people did not match their religious practices.
THE CONCEPT OF FASTING EXPLAINED
Isaiah taught Israel how God viewed fasting. The true concept of fasting had to be taught all over again.
“Is this not the fast that I have chosen:
To loose the bonds of wickedness,
To undo the heavy burdens,
To let the oppressed go free,
And that you break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out;
When you see the naked, that you cover him,
And not hide yourself from your own flesh?”
Fasting as a religious ritual was never something that God taught! The value of fasting was directly related to the way a person lived his life! If the heart is not compassionate, if the heart is instead closed to the needs of the poor and the oppressed, the practice of fasting would be set aside by the Lord!
THE QUESTION OF FASTING IN THE DAYS OF JESUS
The problem of what constituted true fasting persisted till the day of Jesus. It was a big enough issue for Him to address. Jesus upheld the teachings of the ancient prophets.