SET 2: Season of Great Fast
During this season of the Great Fast, we practise three acts of piety that we have sustained from Jewish tradition. They are almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. Jesus, as a genuine Rabbi, reaffirmed these practices with modifications, because people used them as a facade of holiness rather than for maintaining the genuine spirit behind them. Jesus upholds these three practices and promises rewards from his Father for those who practise them properly. Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting are interrelated. Charity is self-rewarding when we do it on behalf of Jesus (Mt 25:40). God, who seeks mercy rather than sacrifice (Mt 9:13), pursues charity along with prayer. Fasting should include prayer and sharing of God-given gifts with others. Let us make this season of the Great Fast meaningful by pursuing it in genuine spirit with more prayer, fasting, and charity without longing for public recognition.
BIBLE TEXT (MATTHEW 6:1-8; 16-18 )
Teaching About Almsgiving
(Mt 6:1) Be careful not to make a show of your righteous acts before people. If you do so, you do not gain anything from your Father in heaven. (2) When you give something to the poor, do not have it trumpeted before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets in order to be praised by the people. I assure you, they have received their reward in full already. (3) But when you give something to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, (4) so that your gift remains really secret. Your Father who sees what is kept secret, will reward you.
Teaching About Prayer
(Mt 6:5) When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. They love to stand and pray in the synagogues or on street corners to be seen by everyone. I assure you, they have already been paid in full. (6) When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is with you in secret; and your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you. (7) When you pray, do not use a lot of words, as the Gentiles do, for they imagine that the more they say, the more chance they have of being heard. (8) Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need, even before you ask him.
Teaching About Fasting
(Mt 6:16) When you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do. They neglect their appearance, so people can see they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward in full already. (17) When you fast anoint your head and wash your face, (18) so that other people will not know you are fasting, but only your Father who sees beyond appearances. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
Chapters five to seven of Matthew’s gospel, comprising as they do the Sermon on the Mount, is a collection of Jesus’ utterances with amendments to the traditional practices and teachings of the Rabbis. He addresses them to his disciples and the public. It is not a deviation from the teachings of Israel, but a perfection of what was distorted in the past. Jesus emphasized the unconditional love and reward in heaven for the sacrificial life in building up the Kingdom of God. The essence of the gospel is in the Sermon on the Mount, including the famous teachings like the Beatitudes (Mt 5:3-12) and the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6:9-13).
Jesus endorsed the three traditional obligations of religious life: almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, with the caution not to exhibit them for seeking public appreciation. God’s recognition will come when we do them with the right intent and genuine spirit. Jesus teaches this against the background of the hypocrisies of the then Jewish leaders. The disciples of Jesus should not follow their wrong motives in the religious practices. They were seeking human admiration and worldly recognition. As a matter of fact, we Christians must not bother ourselves with the mundaneness of human rewards, but must seek glory in heaven based on their virtuous deeds here.
Teaching about Almsgiving
(Mt 6:1) Be careful not to make a show of your righteous acts before people. If you do so, you do not gain anything from your Father in heaven.
Jesus warned his disciples against the false practices and motives of the Scribes and the Pharisees – “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” (Mt 5:20). They were adamant in pursuing their erroneous practices and declined to correct their mistakes when Jesus warned them. The disciples whom the leaders misled must realize their falsities and should behave differently, i.e. in keeping with Jesus’ teachings.
not to make a show of your righteous acts before people
Sedāqâ, the Hebrew word for alms, also means justice or righteousness. So, the Bible translators use almsgiving and righteous acts interchangeably, though righteousness has a wider meaning than almsgiving or acts of mercy. Based on the trend of the time when the rich made a show of their charity, Jesus taught if the motive is public reputation and not kindness towards others, the reward for it is paid off in the self-glory attained. The publicity that others give us in whatever role we play is generally undesirable, motivation behind every action being more important before God.
Almsgiving involves compassion for the less fortunate and a thirst for justice in society. Prosperity or poverty can happen regardless of one’s merits or demerits. But as children of God, humans have to consider each other as siblings and support one another in this world. When we do it in the name of God who is the common Father of all, He will reward us for our good intentions.
The precept of almsgiving and justice developed with the settlement of the Israelites in the Promised Land. Until then, they were a semi-nomadic group without considerable inequalities. God miraculously provided them food and water during the 40 years of their wandering in the desert. After the possession and distribution of the Promised Land among the tribes and families, inequalities grew owing to various reasons. Therefore, God made regulations that required the wealthy to provide for the poor:
1. The hungry could legally eat from another’s field with no guilt – “When you go through your neighbour’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you wish, until you are satisfied, but do not put them in your basket. When you go through your neighbour’s grain-field, you may pluck some of the ears with your hand, but do not put a sickle to your neighbour’s grain” (Deut 23:25-26).
2. The deprived had the privilege of collecting the leftovers after the harvest and from the corners of the grain-fields. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not be so thorough that you reap the field to its very edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Likewise, you shall not pick your vineyard bare, nor gather up the grapes that have fallen. These things you shall leave for the poor and the alien” (Lev 19:9-10).
(3) Once in three years, the Israelites gave tithe for taking care of the Levites and the poor – “At the end of every third year you shall bring out all the tithes of your produce for that year and deposit them within your own communities, that the Levite who has no hereditary portion with you, and also the resident alien, the orphan and the widow within your gates, may come and eat and be satisfied; so that the LORD, your God, may bless you in all that you undertake” (Deut 14:28-29).
(4) During the sabbatical year, the debts were forgiven (Deut 15:1), and the poor could eat from the land that was left uncultivated during the sabbatical year (Ex 23:11).
(5) At every 50th year, the poor who had sold their property could reclaim the same so that equality be maintained. “But if the person does not acquire sufficient means to buy back the land, what was sold shall remain in the possession of the purchaser until the year of the jubilee, when it must be released and returned to the original owner” (Lev 25:28).
God gave these commands because He is the owner of the world and of everything in it. “Look, the heavens, even the highest heavens, belong to the LORD, your God, as well as the earth and everything on it” (Deut 10:14). “The land is mine, and you are but resident aliens and under my authority” (Lev 25:23). We will have to leave all worldly achievements in this world at the end of our lives. “As they came forth from their mother’s womb, so again shall they return, naked as they came, having nothing from their toil to bring with them” (Eccl 5:14). So, Jesus advises that we share the resources of this perishable world for the imperishable savings in heaven (Mk 10:21).
John the Baptist presented sharing resources as a sign of repentance – “Whoever has two tunics should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise” (Lk 3:11). Jesus has advised us to love and to help enemies. “Love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for He Himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Lk 6:35). Jesus and the apostles used to give money to the poor from the little donations they had received (Jn 13:29). John the Apostle taught, “If someone who has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him? Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth” (1 Jn 3:17-18).
Alms & Righteousness
We shall see almsgiving and righteousness from different angles:
1. Righteousness primarily means doing justice to God and to others. Giving alms from the wealth gained through unfair means or exploitation of others is unjustifiable. “Almsgiving with righteousness is better than wealth with wickedness. It is better to give alms than to store up gold” (Tob 12:8). It is the injustice meted out to the needy and their exploitation by greedy people that constitute the cause of poverty. They need to be restituted after the example of Zacchaeus: “If I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over” (Lk 19:8). Such restitution would help to reduce the poverty of the exploited.
2. The donor must respect the dignity of the recipient. God created all humans in His image and likeness. Some became poor by birth, because of their disabilities, sickness, sociopolitical situations, accidents, or even because of the person’s own fault. When the help is offered as a show up, the person’s self-esteem can be hurt. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the affluent person ignored Lazarus and let him feed from his waste bins, competing with wild dogs. He should have treated Lazarus as his brother in a dignified manner.
3. When possible, we have to make the recipient self-reliant. There can be people seeking help without making use of their own resources, like health, skills, and job opportunities. We must provide education, empowerment, skill development, job training, and support for income generation programmes to make a dependent person or family self-supporting. As goes the proverb: “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.”
4. Providing for the necessities of life is not enough for us, humans. People are known to send the elderly, the physically and mentally disabled, or children with special needs to welfare institutions. Their families ought to take care of them in their homes with love and care. Helping such families to support them is better than helping welfare institutions that offer residential programmes for those who can well be brought up in their respective families. Social workers would do well to train such families on how to care for the weak with love and respect.
5. While providing emergency relief during accidents, sickness, pandemics, and natural disasters, we have to adopt scientific measures to avoid such catastrophes in the future.
So, almsgiving is not sharing leftovers from our surplus resources, but wholeheartedly sharing for the self-reliant life of the beneficiary as much as possible. Almsgiving can have a negative impact if it does not constitute responsible giving. So, the best approach is helping people in emergencies, motivating them to make use of their available talents and abilities, supporting a person to become self-reliant, developing the self-esteem of the person concerned, and expressing love as a fellow human. The gospel passage doesn’t imply that we have to hide every good deed. Jesus wanted his followers to be the light of the world (Mt 5:14). He said, “Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father” (Mt 5:16). Jesus also did many good deeds in public because he came as the light of the world (Jn 8:12). However, he tried to avoid publicity by often telling his beneficiaries not to publicize the favours he did for them. So, Jesus cautions us against seeking vainglory in this world for any act of righteousness on our part. Jesus said, “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have done what we were obliged to do’” (Lk 17:10).
If you do so, you do not gain anything from your Father in heaven
Any act of mercy is meritorious before God, and He will reward every good deed done on behalf of Him. “When you give, give generously and not with a stingy heart; for that, the LORD, your God, will bless you in all your works and undertakings” (Deut 15:10). During Old Testament times, such rewards were expected in this life. According to Jesus, this can be true, but the full and final reward will be in heaven. The Last Judgement is based on our virtuous deeds or our sins of omission in relation to the poor (Mt 25:31-46). Jesus even raised the dignity of the poor by equating them with himself – “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Mt 25:40). So, we have the privilege of serving Jesus through those who need our help. Denial of support to the poor is punishable. “Those who shut their ears to the cry of the poor will themselves call out and not be answered” (Prov 21:13). At the last judgement those who deny help will hear the harsh judgement from Jesus, “‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Mt 25:45-46).
from your Father in heaven
In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus gives us the privilege to call God “Our Father in heaven.” Heaven is where the Father exists. Here Jesus says, “your Father in heaven” will reward you for all your charitable deeds, provided your motive was not to project yourselves before others.
(2) When you give something to the poor, do not have it trumpeted before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets in order to be praised by the people. I assure you, they have received their reward in full already.
When you give something to the poor, do not have it trumpeted before you
There might have been rich Jews who trumpeted in public places to congregate the poor to receive alms from them. Their prime motive was to get public attention and admiration. However, there is no known tradition of the donors who blew trumpets before the distribution of alms. So, Jesus might have used a figure of speech to refer to how the rich sought public appreciation when they distributed alms in public, e.g. in the synagogues or streets. Regardless of whether it is a real or metaphorical saying, Jesus’ message is to avoid unnecessary publicity when we do charity. as the hypocrites do
Hypocrisy is the pretence of having a noble virtue that the person does not possess. It involves a show or act rather than reality. The Greek origin of the term stems from theatrical acting. So, here it signifies taking the fake piety of a donor. Jesus used the term ‘hypocrites’ on other occasions as well. The following are examples: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites” (Mt 6:5). “You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first” (Mt 7:5), and “Hypocrites, well did Isaiah prophesy about you when he said: ‘This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’” (Mt 15:7). in the synagogues and in the streets
Beggars seeking alms usually appear at the houses of prayer like the Temple and synagogues because the offering of alms was part of Jewish piety. The synagogues had collection boxes for receiving alms for distribution to the poor. In a wider context, synagogue also meant any public gathering for prayer or any other purpose. They also seek help in the streets or on the pathways usually traversed by people. Jesus criticized the rich who were interested in fame rather than donating in private. Jesus wants charity out of love without humiliation to the recipient.
in order to be praised by the people
Since synagogues and streets were public places, the hypocrites distributed alms in front of crowds, brazenly ensuring that their generosity would not go unnoticed. The public admired the generosity of the contributors because almsgiving was considered a virtue.
I assure you
Jesus was sure of what he was declaring.
they have received their reward in full already
Those who help others deserve a reward either from the public or from God. Since the intention of the hypocrites was human admiration, they got it fully here, with nothing more left to their merit in heaven. Jesus assured a reward for all humanitarian works in the name of God. If we do them only for human recognition, we might miss God’s reward in heaven. Jesus guarantees compensation for any unrecognized labour for the Lord and His people.
(3) But when you give something to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.
By this proverbial usage, Jesus recommended private charity and voluntary service, which are rewarding in that they come from God. It will also respect the privacy and dignity of the recipients. Traditionally, the right hand has a positive or spiritual element attached to it because we offer donations and charitable services mainly using the right hand. It is symbolic of power and help. The left hand was considered as self-centred. However, some people are left-handed. Though both hands are of the same body, this hyperbolic expression emphasizes the nobility of private giving, which is more pleasing to God than giving with pride and accompanied by publicity.
(4) so that your gift remains really secret. Your Father who sees what is kept secret, will reward you.
Your gift remains really secret
“Jewish tradition tells us that in the ancient Jerusalem Temple there was a room known as the Chamber of Secrets. Donors would go there to secretly make charitable donations and people from good families who had become impoverished would go there in secret to take the donations, to feed themselves and their loved ones” (https://www.wamc.org/commentary-opinion/2020-12-31/danornstein-the-chamber-of-secrets). Thus, the Chamber of Secrets was for private giving and confidential receiving devoid of embarrassment. It is better to avoid giving for one’s own publicity than harming the dignity of the recipient. But the Pharisees and the Scribes had ignored such valuable Jewish practices and gave alms for their self-glory while degrading the poor.
Secret giving can be primarily for almsgiving or personal giving. There can be acts of mercy that might need public documentation, like supporting charitable organizations and institutions.
Your Father who sees what is kept secret, will reward you
God the Father is omniscient and knows the secrets of our hearts (Ps 44:2) – “No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account” (Heb 4:13). So, God understands the good deeds done in secret and will reward the donor. That can be in this life (Ps 37:25; 41:1-4; 112:9) or in the life after. “Lend expecting nothing back; then your reward will be great” (Lk 6:35). Jesus expressed the reward in the afterlife in the words he would use at the last judgement (Mt 25:34-36). The best kind of charity is when the giver does not know who the beneficiary is, and the receiver does not know the donor. God, who knows the goodwill of the donor, will reward that person.
Teaching about Prayer
(Mt 6:5) When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. They love to stand and pray in the synagogues or on street corners to be seen by everyone. I assure you, they have already been paid in full.
When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites
The necessity of prayer is presumed. That also should not be for public admiration, like some people do with almsgiving. Jesus calls such people hypocrites.
They love to stand and pray in the synagogues or on street corners to be seen by everyone
The Jewish practice for prayer was to stand facing the holy of holies or the Temple with hands outstretched towards heaven. At the dedication of the Temple, “Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of the whole assembly of Israel, and stretching forth his hands towards heaven …” (1 Kgs 8:22). Besides worship in the synagogues, the Jews prayed thrice a day on the streets while travelling or working. Street corners were road intersections that would attract the attention of more passersby than the streets. Jesus accused the Pharisees and the Scribes of seeking vainglory by selecting public places for prayer. He did not discourage public prayer but abhorred the exhibitionistic approach and the bad intentions behind them.
I assure you, they have already been paid in full
Jesus confirmed that the show-up people already got their full reward by way of admiration from the public for their piety, thereby forfeiting any merit from God.
(6) When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father who is with you in secret; and your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.
When you pray, go into your room, close the door
Many Jewish families had prayer rooms for their private devotion. It was known as “upper room” because it was on the upper level of the house. Jesus suggested that room for private devotions towards God. He specified the closing of the door so as to be free from domestic distractions. Besides our prayer services with the community, Jesus also recommended personal prayer in seclusion with his Father.
Pray to your Father who is with you in secret
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to pray in the words, “Our Father who art in heaven….”, thus giving us the privilege to address God as our Father. The first part of that prayer consists of praise and worship of the Father. Jesus assures the presence of the Father with the person who prays. When Moses prayed on Mount Sinai and Jesus prayed in solitude, they experienced the presence of the Father.
Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you
God the Father knows even the secrets of our life. The reward of prayer is the grace of loyalty to Him, along with our praise and worship. God knows what we need and will provide the same the way parents provide for their children. “Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom [of God] and His righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Mt 6:32-33). God will grant our spiritual requests. There can be unanswered prayers for our material needs, like parental denial of some non-essential or harmful requests from children. So, we have to submit to the will of the Father. As Jesus prayed at Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39).
Jesus is also in favour of public worship because he regularly attended the synagogue services (Mk 11:15-19; Jn 7:1-37). The focus here is private and personal prayer. Such prayer shall not be intended for public appeal. Jesus also availed of solitude in the mountains (Mt 14:23; Mk 6:46; Jn 6:15) and in gardens (Mt 26:36) for the purpose of praying in private. For Jesus, prayer was being in communion with God.
(7) When you pray, do not use a lot of words, as the Gentiles do, for they imagine that the more they say, the more chance they have of being heard.
After contrasting with the Jewish hypocrites, Jesus mentioned a gentile model that also we Christians should avoid. Jesus noticed that the prayers of the gentiles were rather verbose and repetitive, on the presumption that, by such pleas, they could earn favours from their gods.
Prayer is more than a mechanical recitation or a repetition of words. It is implicit of a close bond of the faithful with God by way of keeping His commandments. We Christians should express that in our love relationships with fellow humans who are also God’s children.
If repetition in prayer is undesirable, does it mean that Jesus’ teaching is against the rosary or the litany that we use? Jesus himself had repeated his prayers. While in Gethsemane before his trial and crucifixion, “He left them and withdrew again and prayed a third time, saying the same thing again” (Mt 26:44). Repetition in prayer adds to the strength of the appeal. However, with our Christian attitude and mental disposition, our spirituality should help us surpass any mechanical repetition of prayers,
How exactly the gentiles used excessive verbiage in their prayer is unclear. However, the Bible does record one such instance. When Elijah competed on Mount Carmel with 450 prophets of Baal to test whose prayer would be answered, the pagan prophets “called upon Baal from morning to noon, saying, ‘Baal, answer us!’ But there was no sound, and no one answering” (1 Kgs 18:26)! The pagans harboured the false notion that the more they prayed, the better were the chances of getting a positive response from their gods. The Pharisees also indulged in the vain repetition of prayers while their hearts were far away from God and from their fellow humans. God does not answer on the basis of how much we invoke Him, but on how we live our lives and what He considers best for us.
(8) Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need, even before you ask him.
Often, people worry about their physical needs. For a Christian, that should not be a concern, because God knows the needs of all. When a person works for the kingdom of God and leads a righteous life, everything else will be available. “So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Mt 6:31-33).
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God, or the requesting of good things from God” (CCC 2559). It also emphasizes the importance of humility in our disposition to prayer. “But when we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or ‘out of the depths’ of a humble and contrite heart? He who humbles himself will be exalted; humility is the foundation of prayer. Only when we humbly acknowledge that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought,’ are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. ‘Man is a beggar before God’” (CCC 2559).
Teaching about Fasting
(16a) When you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do. They neglect their appearance, so people can see they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward in full already (Mt 6:16).
When you fast
“When you fast” means a private and voluntary fast apart from legally designated fasting, especially on the day of atonement. The Pharisees fasted on Thursday remembering Moses’ ascendance to Mount Sinai and on Monday remembering his descending from the mountain. Such voluntary fasting should not be seeking public recognition.
Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights to prepare for his public ministry (Mt 4:2). Moses also fasted on Mount Sinai to prepare for receiving the Ten Commandments from God. Anna “worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer” (Lk 2:37) for many years in the Temple before she welcomed the Infant Jesus. For the early Church leaders, prayer was part of fasting (Acts 13:2-3). So fasting is essentially part of prayer and a period of communion with God.
When a believer is in heavenly bliss, the person will not feel hunger or thirst as had happened in the case of Moses and Jesus for forty days. The fasting period should be a time focused on God whereby one spends more time on one’s spiritual growth. Fasting shall include a reflective reading of the Bible, participation in the liturgy, reconciliation with God and fellow humans, improving life, and helping the needy. Therefore, alms and prayer are interlinked with fasting. While favouring fasting, the issue Jesus raised was the wrong intention behind fasting and the contrived gesture people used as a façade.
People understand and observe fasting in different ways:
1. Supernatural fast: Moses had this type of fasting where he did not eat and drink for 40 days and nights. Supernatural enablement is needed to survive such fasting.
2. Full fast: This is a complete fast without eating and drinking for a few days, like a three-day fast (Ezr 10:6; Esth 4:16; Acts 9:9). Such a fast is unhealthy if it prolongs over three days.
3. Liquid fast: Some people abstain from food and drink except for water for a few days. That Jesus did not eat for 40 days was a miraculous event (Mt 4:2-3; Lk 4:2). The Gospels do not specify whether Jesus drank water during this fasting.
4. Partial fast: This is abstention from some particular food for a specific period. Daniel ate only vegetables and drank only water and avoided king’s food and wine for his three-year training in Babylon (Dan 1:5,8,12). When he mourned for three weeks, he ate “no savoury food, took no meat or wine, and did not anoint” (Dan 10:3). During the Great Fast of 40 or 50 days, some abstain from meat, sweet items, or alcoholic drinks. Others abstain from a few select items on Fridays and days of abstinence.
5. Skipping meal: Most people opt to skip a meal or have one meal a day supplementing with snacks. Usually, people do this on the day of imposition of ashes and Fridays of lent, including the Passion Friday.
The duration of one’s fast can also vary. It can be one day or part of a day (Judg 20:26; 1 Sam 7:6; 2 Sam 1:12; 2 Sam 3:35), three days (Esth 4:16; Acts 9:9), seven days (1 Sam 31:13; 2 Sam 16:18), 14 days (Acts 27:33-34), 21 days (Dan 10:3), or 40 days (Deut 9:9; 1 Kgs 19:8; Mt 4:2). The fasting can be continuous for intermittent days like one day a week. The Pharisees used to fast twice a week as clear from the prayer of the publican and Pharisee in the Temple (Lk 18:12).
The reasons for fasting can be:
1. To express our devotion to God (Lk 2:37),
2. To gain spiritual strength (Mt 17:21),
3. To humble ourselves before God for His support (Ezr 8:21),
4. Before making important decisions (Judg 20:26),
5. For healing (2 Sam 12:16-18), for an end of a pandemic, war, or any such intention,
6. To get protection from God against enemies (2 Chr 20:1-4),
7. For forgiveness of sins (Jonah 3:4-10; 1 Sam 7:6),
8. To express grief at the loss of a dear one (1 Sam 31:13, 2 Sam 1:12).
Fasting will be effective when we humble ourselves before the LORD, repent of our sins, and resolve to sin no more. After Jonah’s preaching, the king of Nineveh proclaimed throughout his nation, “Man and beast alike must be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God; they all must turn from their evil way and from the violence of their hands” (Jonah 3:8).
Reading and reflecting on the Scriptures will be effective as part of fasting and resistance for temptations. The defence of Jesus to overcome his temptations during his 40-day fast was Sacred Scripture.
Fasting helps us to remain close to God through reconciliation, evasion of sins, experiencing spiritual joy, sharing in the sufferings of those who starve, and increasing in self-control. It calls for a change on our part from our sinful way of life. “So one who fasts for sins, but goes and commits them again: Who will hear his prayer, what is gained by mortification?” (Sir 34:31)
The money we would have used for the food and drink on the day of fasting should be shared with the poor or the starving. The time we save from skipping the meal should be used for extra prayer. Avoiding entertainment or social media and devoting that time to prayer is another way of fasting. Instead of listening to secular music, some people devote time to spiritual channels during the period of the Great Lent. Jesus wants to avoid exhibitionism and self-projection in these to evade human recognition.
Do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do. They neglect their appearance, so people can see they are fasting.
Jesus endorsed fasting with the stipulation that the believer avoid exhibitionism of piety through outward appearances. The Pharisees reflected the physical effect of their fasting on their faces and in their appearance by way of smearing themselves with ashes, formal uncleanliness including hair overgrowth, wearing a gloomy look and the like.
God had criticized Israel for their hypocritical fasting, “See, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits and drive all your labourers. See, you fast only to quarrel and fight and to strike with a wicked fist! Do not fast as you do today to make your voice heard on high! Is this the manner of fasting I would choose a day to afflict oneself? To bow one’s head like a reed, and lie upon sackcloth and ashes? Is this what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?” (Isa 58:3-5)
(16b) Truly I say to you, they have received their reward in full already
As Jesus mentioned for almsgiving and prayer, he repeated that those who fast for human recognition already got what they sought. They were ineligible for any merit in heaven because they got their full credit from the public.
(17) When you fast anoint your head and wash your face,
The Jews routinely washed their bodies, especially their hands and face, and anointed themselves with fragrant olive oil. In a warm climate, these were necessary for better health and hygiene (Jn 12:3; Jas 5:14). Anointing, washing, and changing clothes were signs of joy and a normal life. Naomi instructed Ruth, “go bathe and anoint yourself; then put on your best attire” to end her widowhood before approaching Boaz (Ruth 3:3). David fasted and prayed for seven days when his son from Bathsheba was seriously sick. When the child died on the seventh day, he ended his fast. “Rising from the ground, David washed and anointed himself, and changed his clothes. Then he went to the house of the LORD and worshiped. He returned to his own house and asked for food; they set it before him, and he ate” (2 Sam 12:20).
The elders of Israel had prohibited the anointing of the head and the washing of the face during the fast on the Day of Atonement. The Jews who practised private fasting followed the same on other days, like Mondays and Thursdays, so their fasting was noticeable to the public. Jesus gave importance to the spirit behind the fast, like extra prayer, repentance, restitution, and acts of charity than external acts of piety. He asked those who fasted to appear normal while they develop an internal disposition acceptable to God. Jesus did not literally mean to have one’s head anointed and one’s face washed, but rather that the person should not appear any different because of his fasting.
(18) so that other people will not know you are fasting, but only your Father who sees beyond appearances. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
Jesus advised his disciples that they also must fast when it is time for them to do so. The disciples of John the Baptist asked Jesus, “‘Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?’ Jesus answered 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’” (Mt 9:14-15). Hence, his disciples are per se not exempt from fasting. They should avoid hypocrisy, vainglory, and pretension in religious practices, which were characteristics of the self-righteous Pharisees.
The goal of fasting is not to please or gain a reward from fellow humans, but from God. Our omniscient God understands the actions and intentions of the believer who fasts in secret. Jesus assured a reward for such genuine fasting.
1. The Pharisees and the Scribes practised their religious observances with wrong motives. So, they deserved only human recognition and not God’s reward. Are our works of charity, prayer, and fasting intended for praise from society, to boost our reputation, and to highlight our integrity?
2. Jesus assures rewards for all kinds of charity we do for the poor provided we do that with good intentions. Let us examine whether we do these just for publicity or for heavenly reward.
3. The Great Fast is the best time for our spiritual renewal. Let us increase the frequency of our prayers in the Church, in the family, and in personal prayer.
4. Prayer without acts of mercy is worthless because Hosea (9:9) and Jesus (Mt 9:13) teach us that God seeks mercy rather than sacrifice. Let us also help others so we become eligible for standing at the right of Jesus when he comes again to judge humanity.
5. Our fasting will be fruitless if we do not supplement it with extra prayers and charity with the time and money we save from fasting.
6. A responsible and prudent approach to charity is necessary so as to avoid the undeserving and to support the truly deserving.
7. Charity is not just supporting financially. As far as possible, we should help others become self-reliant rather than keep them dependent on others.