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Jesus on Fasting (Part 1)
Tomorrow brings the start of our 40 days of prayer and fasting as a church. After James' inspiring message about prayer on Sunday, I thought I'd write a few articles on fasting (going without food or something else important) especially looking at what Jesus said about it.
Photo by Amy
Jesus doesn’t ever directly command people to fast. His Jewish audience would have kept to a strict calendar of feasts and fasts and so, instead, Jesus’ wants to steer people away from cold, ritual observance, towards a warm, heart-felt embracing of fasting.
Here’s the account in Matthew 9:14 where some of John The Baptists’ followers challenge Him about His disciples’ lack of fasting:
Then John’s disciples came and asked him, “How is it that we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?”
First rule about coming to Jesus with a question… don’t try to score points by affiliating yourself with Pharisees! Jesus responds in style and with three ‘micro-parables’:
15 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. 16 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. 17 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.” (Matt 9:15-17)
Wedding guests don’t mourn at a wedding; that would be as ridiculous as fasting when not motivated by a serious need! It would be fake, empty and inappropriate.
Jesus is trying to teach about His Kingdom and help people to see that it’s very different to the religious world that they’re living in. Just before this exchange with John’s disciples, Jesus is criticised by the Pharisees for spending time with ‘tax collectors and sinners’; he tells them that they need to learn what it means in Hosea 6:6 when God says to His people, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ Jesus was reaching out to the people that the religious types were ignoring whilst they kept to their strict pattern of ritualistic fasts.
Closer to a funeral than a wedding
Fasts were planned a long time in advance, at set dates in the calendar and most people join in because they feel like they have to (some might say that sounds like a wedding!) Mourning, on the other hand, isn’t planned; it’s a natural response the death of a loved one. Jesus is saying that the motivation for fasting is all-important, you shouldn’t just do it to please or impress someone else. He was turning the religious world upside down and suggests with the other two micro-parables that the current way of doing things was broken and not fit for purpose. When there are new garments, new wineskins and new wine available, why continue with the old?
Serious Felt Need
This isn’t referring to an under-prepared kids craft party; this is what Jesus is saying our motivation for fasting should be; that it is like mourning; you do it in response to circumstances, when there is a serious felt need and not just as an empty ritual. This doesn’t rule out having times of fasting in your diary or a whole church taking part in a week or 40 day fast, but it does mean that before fasting we need to pause and seriously consider the needs surrounding us. Try this, take a short walk around your neighbourhood with this questions in mind, ‘What are the needs here?’ and you’ll soon have lots of cause for fasting.
A New Worldview
You can probably feel by now that Jesus is talking about more than just fasting in these verses. Jesus often does this; when asked about something specific, His reply makes you re-think your whole view of the world! Are there any areas in which I’ve slipped into empty ritual and missed what God really wants me to be doing?
Isaiah 58 is a massively challenging chapter on fasting. People are complaining to God for not noticing their fasting or sorting out their problems. God is furious because they are completely missing the point. They treat their fast as a holiday and their workers pick up the slack, “Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure and oppress all your workers.” (v3) They use their fasting as a justification for bad moods and violence; and all the while they are utterly ignoring all the obvious needs around them. Here’s what God really wants them to be doing:
6 “Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Going back to the micro-parable about the wedding and the mourning; I’ve always thought that Jesus was referring to us, nowadays, as the ‘wedding guests’ who will fast when He, ‘the bridegroom’, is no longer around. However, in John 14-16 when Jesus broke the devastating news to His disciples that He would be leaving them, He quickly reassures them that they will be better off when He goes because Another just like Him will come and live within them.
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” (John 14:18)
“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7)
For a few days after His ascension, Jesus’ disciples must have felt like the bridegroom had been taken away in front of their eyes whilst they were just getting stuck into the main course at the wedding; left confused and afraid. Then everything changed on the day of Pentecost. They were filled with the Spirit; blissfully at one with Jesus and the Father; and enjoying it so much that people accused them of being drunk! The new wine had just been delivered; and the supply is still exceeding demand.
Now that Jesus is back through Holy Spirit, we don’t fast because ‘the bridegroom has been taken away’. Instead He is constantly with us, helping us to realise what has always been the case; that God doesn’t want us to earn an audience with Him by point-scoring-sacrifices. Jesus was the ultimate and conclusive sacrifice on the Cross and when we have faith in this, He freely gives us a relationship with Him that we could never earn. A life of sacrifice, including fasting, naturally flows out in response to God’s grace and the needs that we see around us.
1. Going without food can be a good thing to do, but don’t get so wrapped in your own world that you forget to follow God’s lead in caring for people the despairing, desperate and destitute. Clearly there’s room for both, but God’s numerous warnings in the Bible (e.g. James 1:27, Matt 12:7, Micah 6:6-8, Isaiah 1:11-17) show that there’s a real tendency in us to focus too much on the act of personal sacrifice and neglect the needs of others around us.
2. Let’s not be ritualistic about fasting. Only do it when it’s a natural response to a need that really hits you in the gut.
3. Having said that, whenever I take time out to consider what’s going on in my life or in the world around me, I always end up realising that there are some serious needs! Maybe the start of this 40 days would be a good time for you to stop and take a good look around.