Part 7 of my Lenten Series

….over at The Catholic Weekly, “Jesus on Fasting”:

Jesus finishes his discussion of the three Jewish acts of piety—almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—with an utterly consistent emphasis on fasting for God and not for human acclaim:

“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But 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; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18)

It is notable that Jesus focuses on the spirit in which we fast, not on how to fast.  No “tips on healthy fasting” or “juices to drink to cleanse the gut tract” advice. Not a word about the mechanics of fasting, just as there is no word about who to give alms to, how often, or how much.  He leaves all that up to us in our liberty before God.

But when it comes to motive, Jesus is absolutely adamant: just as we must give alms and pray to receive praise from God alone, so we are to fast.

It is easy, at this point, to mishear the why of Jesus’ teaching, because much of our culture is not so much Christian as Stoic.  So if you quiz many ordinary people, they think Jesus wants us to fast with no thought of reward, rather like many people think Jesus wants us to go to Heaven.

But neither of these things are true.  Jesus, as I have been at pains to stress over this series, has no interest in “life after death”.  What he teaches—and personally demonstrates—is not “life after death” but “life after life after death”.  That is, Jesus teaches the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come in a New Heaven and a New Earth.

And for that reason, Jesus emphatically does not teach us to give alms, pray, or fast with no hope of reward.  That is pagan Stoicism.  Jesus teaches us to give alms, pray, and fast without seeking an earthly reward precisely because he does want us to seek a reward—a much bigger, better, and eternal reward from his Father.

This shocks some people, who think that any pursuit of Christian virtue motivated by a desire for reward is somehow “really” selfish.  But there are rewards and rewards.

Think of it this way: a man who seeks to marry a woman because he wants her money is seeking a reward false to the nature of love. If he achieves this evil goal he “has his reward” in the same sense that a man fasting to show off for the approval of men has his. But a man who seeks to marry because he wants to love the woman he loves as perfectly as possible gains the reward proper to his desires.  Marriage to the beloved is the reward proper to love.  Money is the “reward” alien to love.

Fasting is likewise supposed to be ordered toward the love of God, saying “No” to our appetites temporarily, not to punish ourselves, but to focus ourselves on joining Jesus in his act of self-denial for the love of God and neighbor.  The goal is not to say to the world, “Look at me!” but to look at God: to see him and seek him as Jesus did when he too denied himself in the desert for forty days.

But, like Jesus, our fasting is for something, not for nothing.  It is not pointless suffering but is rather fasting to be joined to God in love for the salvation of the world.  So Isaiah tells us:

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
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?” (Isaiah 58:6-7)

…and he concludes:

“[T]hen shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your desire with good things.” (Isaiah 58:10-11).

God commands fasting, not to annihilate desire (that’s Buddhism) but to order it toward the true goal of all our desires: himself.

Next time: We will look at how Jesus sums up all the Lenten disciplines on Good Friday.


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