A Question of Fasting

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Matthew 9:14-17

What should be a Christian’s attitude toward the religious rule and spiritual practices that some say we ought to observe? Jesus’ teaching helps us consider that.

Is Christianity a religion? That may sound like a question with a rather obvious answer, but the fact is that people often assert that Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship. In fact, I’ve said that very thing myself. It’s a way of stressing an important truth, namely, that authentic Christianity is not merely a matter of outward activity but begins with a personal relationship with Jesus Christ based on faith.

But while it’s true that Christianity at its heart is all about knowing, loving, following, and serving Jesus Christ, the fact is, Christianity is a religion as well. Religion can be defined as a set of beliefs and practices that govern a people’s way of relating to God. And Christians certainly have those. What’s difficult for us is knowing just how to strike a balance between the religion and the relationship aspects of our faith.

Assuming that we really do believe in Christ, how much do we insist that certain practices are mandatory in the Christian life or how much freedom do Christians have to decide for themselves? What about all those rules? Do Christians have to fast, for example, or tithe, or keep the sabbath day? Are we required to abstain from some kinds of food or drink? Must we worship in a certain way, or on a certain day? Are we obligated to separate ourselves from worldly people and their activities? Churches and individual believers alike have long struggled with a host of such questions.

A Question about Fasting

It might interest you to know that Jesus did too. Matthew 9 records an interesting dinner-table conversation that Jesus had one day.

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

Matthew 9:14-17

This passage comes right after Matthew’s story of his own conversion and the dinner party he hosted to introduce his friends to Jesus. While he was dining in Matthew’s house Jesus was criticized by his enemies the Pharisees for eating and drinking with disreputable, sinful people, and Jesus responded by reminding them that those were exactly the kinds of people he had come to save.

Now some disciples of John – that’s John the Baptist – approach him with a different kind of problem. They’re bothered not so much by the guest list at the party, but by the party itself. We practice fasting, they say to Jesus, and the Pharisees here, they also fast. So why don’t your disciples? Here we are denying ourselves, but for you and your disciples it seems to be “party city” all the time. Why aren’t you folks more serious about your religion, like us?” The specific question John’s disciples asked Jesus was about fasting, but it really raises the whole issue of spiritual discipline and religious rules and their role in the Christian life.

Jesus answers with an argument based upon a metaphor. My disciples are like the friends of the bridegroom at a wedding party, he says; it wouldn’t be right for them to mourn or fast while we’re all together at the feast. New Testament scholar Dale Bruner explains the significance of this wedding image that Jesus used.

To fast at someone’s wedding party would not only be unnatural; it would be rude and selfish. . . . At the Jewish wedding one was with best friends at a party that lasted seven days, with the finest food, drink, and fun available. For one of the inner circle to be fasting now would be a capital insult to the host, depressing for everyone else, and callously egocentric. (F. Dale Bruner, Matthew, A Commentary: The Christ book, p. 424f.)

But then having explained why his disciples are celebrating (because Jesus the bridegroom is now with them) Jesus then adds that his disciples will fast later, after the bridegroom is taken from them.

So what’s the point of his answer? I think Jesus is offering us some principles to guide our practice of fasting specifically and of the spiritual disciplines in general. The first principle is this: Timing is everything. There is a sense in which the Lord has now been taken from us. Since his death, resurrection and ascension Jesus is no longer physically present on earth. His church prays and longs for the day of his return, when once more we shall behold him, and live forever in his presence. But as Jesus himself promised, he is also here with us through his Spirit. He has not left us alone, as orphans.

So there should be seasons of both feasting and fasting in the Christian life. There are times when we join together to celebrate his presence – “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I” – and there are times when we sense his absence, and mourn over the evil in the world and in our own lives. One good time to fast would be when we are feeling far away from God. Fasting can express our sorrow for sin, and our hunger for the Lord.

Here is a second principle: In any religious activity your heart attitude is what really matters. The problem with fasting at a wedding feast is not just that it is inappropriate, but that it is self-aggrandizing. It’s a form of religious showing off, a way of drawing attention to yourself in order to enhance your reputation for holiness. “Look at him. He’s so pious he won’t even eat a piece of wedding cake!” “Beware of practicing your piety before others,” Jesus taught his disciples,

And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:16-18

The spiritual disciplines are not intended merely as practice in self-denial, or to gain control over our body by saying “no” to it. Spiritual exercises, like physical ones, can be beneficial, but only when they are used for their true purpose. The point of physical exercise for Christians isn’t just to have a more fit and attractive body that you (and others) can admire. It’s to have a healthier body that you can use for the worship and service of God (Romans 12:2).

The point of spiritual exercises like fasting isn’t to make you proud of your self-control or feel good about your devotion to God or impress others with your level of piety. It’s to enable you to enter more deeply into communion with the Lord, and to serve others more selflessly in his name. So the attitude with which you undertake discipline and the purpose for which you practice it is what really matters.

The third principle of the spiritual disciplines is this: as followers of Jesus, Freedom is our right. I think that’s what Jesus meant by those images he used of the new patch on the old garment, and the new wine in the new wineskins. Jesus is what’s new. His coming into the world breaks the old molds, and demands a new approach. Religion loves to make rules. Some churches have required fasting on certain days or seasons. Other churches have legislated what should or shouldn’t be done on Sunday. Still others have forbidden activities or pastimes that are not inherently sinful. Many of the rules that churches have made can be good, but none should be imposed as laws upon a Christian’s conscience. In the gospel Christ has set us free from obedience to human rules and regulations.

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink [wrote the apostle Paul] or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. . . . Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism . . . . why . . . do you submit to regulations – “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” . . . according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom . . . but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

Colossians 2:16, 18, 20-23

Some Christians today still act like John’s disciples did, criticizing Jesus’ followers because they aren’t “spiritual” enough, as defined by their religious rule-book. But if I belong to Christ, I’ve been set free from the tyranny of human opinions – set free to become Christ’s devoted servant.

That’s the paradox of Christian freedom. As the Reformation began to spread across Europe Martin Luther wrote an influential treatise entitled On Christian Liberty, in which he expressed the paradox in these words:

I set down first these two propositions concerning the liberty and bondage of the spirit: A Christian . . . is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian . . . is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to everyone.

Only when we become Christ’s captives do we find true freedom, freedom to be ourselves and to devote ourselves to serving others.

. . . . for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

(John Donne, Holy Sonnet XIV)