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. Matthew 6:16 (NRSV)
Altogether now, let’s sing: “Smile when your tummy’s rumbling, smile, don’t you start your grumbling. Fasting’s not bad. You can smile and be glad!”
Once again, Jesus is stressing the importance of secrecy in the practice of one’s faith, be it giving alms, praying, or fasting. Evidently it was very common to see people practicing their piety for show. We know that Jesus, alone in the wilderness, fasted forty days after His baptism and before beginning His public ministry. By His own practice and by His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, it would seem that Jesus endorses fasting as a spiritual discipline and He also gives some general guidelines for doing it.
First, Jesus says, “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal.” In other words, don’t call attention to your fasting by looking like you have fasted for weeks and you began your fast that morning. If at mealtime with others, don’t look like a puppy begging for a morsel from the hands of those seated around the table. Smile, be cheerful, enjoy your glass of water, and engage in polite conversation with those at the table. Don’t announce your fast as you might if you began a diet. Don’t announce your fast to be commended by others.
Second, Jesus says, “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.” One does not fast to lose weight, although this result most likely will occur. One fasts to be drawn closer to God and to practice not living “by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” In other words, as much as is possible, one should fast so that what one is doing is known only to God. While weight loss may be achieved, the truly desired goal is to deepen one’s relationship to God.
In our world, unless we live as hermits or recluses, it is hard to practice fasting without others wondering and most likely questioning us why we are abstaining from food or drink. Jesus encourages us to fast without proclaiming it by our words or appearances. Being discrete or perhaps interrupting our fast when with others may be better solutions to the practice of fasting so that we reap the secret rewards our Heavenly Father wishes to give us.
O God, when I fast help me to do it for all of the right reasons and help me to do it in the right way. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen.