when you fast

Don’t you love the difference the choice between two words can make?

One word makes things optional. One word makes them expected.

One word makes you think about the perhaps. One word makes you think about the procedure.

One word is about whether. One word is about how.

One word is “if”. One word is “when”.

Jesus talks about fasting in Matthew 6:16-18. He starts this section of his sermon with “When you fast.”

He could have made it completely optional by saying “if”. He could have removed it from consideration at all by not talking about it all (thereby leaving the conversation about fasting up to commentators – “The fact that Jesus didn’t mention fasting suggests that he found it an unimportant element of spiritual life.”)

Instead, fasting shows up three times in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life. The first time is when Jesus himself fasts for 40 days prior to his temptation. The third time is in Matthew 9 where John’s disciples ask Jesus why both they and the Pharisees fast and Jesus’s disciples don’t. The second time is here where Jesus is talking about how to fast.

Because we are looking at Matthew as kind of a handbook for what it means to be a follower of Jesus, let’s take a look at these three. One tells us that Jesus himself saw value in fasting, particularly before the beginning of his ministry. The third tells us that both groups of super-religious people saw fasting itself as an observable measure of spirituality. In the second Jesus says that if fasting is done for how it looks, then what humans think of you is all it is good for.

Said differently, if you want people to be impressed, then be public about your fasting. If you want God to listen, be incredibly private.