“Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, ‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?’” (Matthew 9:14)
Jesus told us in our Gospel passage on Ash Wednesday: “When you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. … When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret.” (Matthew 6:16-18)
In other words, it is possible that the disciples of Jesus were fasting but were not showing it. Nevertheless, it is equally possible that the disciples of Jesus were not fasting in recognition of Jesus’ Divinity. As Jesus puts it: “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.” (Matthew 9:15).
It is important to note that Jesus did not condemn fasting in itself. Jesus only used the occasion to reveal His identity as God in human flesh. There is nothing wrong with fasting as a spiritual exercise so long as we do not make a public show of our fasting.
Do not forget that Fasting is not merely abstaining from food, water or other pleasurable things, it is also and more importantly abstaining from quarrelling, fighting and other acts of wickedness. According to Isaiah in today’s first reading, these vices make our fasting null and void.
It is often said that “a hungry man is an angry man.” It is true that when we are hungry, we are more likely to lose our temper. This is why we must be very careful so as not to allow our fasting to become an occasion for anger, bitterness or insulting others. It is better not to fast than to allow your hunger to push you into sin.
In fact, Isaiah further clarifies that there is a type of fasting that is far better than not eating. This fasting involves the following: “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke… to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him” (Isaiah 58:6-7).
In this way, Isaiah recommends the seven corporal works of mercy as dimensions of fasting. Honestly just as it takes a great deal of sacrifice on our part to deprive ourselves of food and other pleasures, it is equally sacrificial to perform these corporal works of mercy. This is given that we live in a society where people seek to take advantage of the charity of others, a society where some have taken it as a business to tell lies from place to place in the name of begging, a society where armed robbers disguise as homeless persons seeking for help, a society where no one can be trusted.
We should never be discouraged to carry out this type of fasting because as much as it is a huge risk to help others, it is even a greater risk to care only for yourself. Do you remember the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus? Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)
In truth, fasting is useless if nobody benefits from it. Fast from selfishness, fast from self-centeredness, leave your comfort zone, visit the poor, the lonely, the oppressed, those who have nowhere to stay or cannot afford to buy clothes and help as much as you can.
Let us pray: Lord Jesus, may my fast find favour in your sight. Amen.
Bible Study: Isaiah 58:1-9, Psalm 51, and Matthew 9:14-15).