A Commentary by John Stott
Matthew 6:16-18. A Christian’s religion: Christian fasting.
So whether for penitence or for prayer, for self-discipline or for solidary love, there are good biblical reason for fasting. Whatever our reasons, Jesus took it for granted that fasting would have a place in our Christian life. His concern was that, as with our giving and praying so with our fasting, we should not, like the hypocrites, draw attention to ourselves. Their practice was to *look dismal* and *disfigure their faces*. The word translated ‘disfigure’ (*aphanizo*) means literally to ‘make to disappear’ and so to ‘render invisible or unrecognizable’. They may have neglected personal hygiene, or covered their heads with sackcloth, or perhaps smeared their faces with ashes in order to look pale, wan, melancholy and so outstandingly holy. All so that their fasting might be seen and known by everybody. The admiration of the onlookers would be all the reward they got. ‘But as for you, my disciples’ Jesus went on, *when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face*, that is, ‘brush your hair and wash your face’. (JPB) Jesus was not recommending anything unusual, as if they were now to affect a particular kind of gaiety. For, as Calvin justly comments, ‘Christ does not withdraw us from one kind of hypocrisy, to lead us into another.’. He assumed that they would have ‘a wash and brush up’ every day, and on fast days they were to do it as usual, so that nobody would suspect that they were fasting. Then once again *your Father who sees in secret will reward you*. For the purpose in fasting is not to advertise ourselves but to discipline ourselves, not to gain a reputation for ourselves but to express our humility before God and our concern for others in need. If these purposes are fulfilled, it will be reward enough.
Looking back over these verses, it is evident that throughout Jesus has been contrasting two alternative kinds of piety, pharisaic and Christian. Pharisaic piety is ostentatious, motivated by vanity and rewarded by men. Christian piety is secret, motivated by humility and rewarded by God.
In order to grasp the alternative even more clearly, it may be helpful to look at the cause and effect of both forms. First the effect. Hypocritical religion is perverse because it is destructive. We have seen that praying, giving and fasting are all authentic activities in their own right. To pray is to seek God, to give is to serve others, to fast is to discipline oneself. But the effect of hypocrisy is to destroy the integrity of these practices by turning each of them into an occasion for self-display.
What then, is the cause? If we can isolate this, we can also find the remedy. Although one of the refrains of this passage is ‘before men in order to be seen and praised by men’, it is not men with whom the hypocrite is obsessed, but himself. ‘Ultimately’, writes Dr, Lloyd-Jones, ‘our only reason for pleasing men around us is that we may please ourselves.’ (p330). The remedy then is obvious. We have to become so conscience of God that we cease to be self-conscience. And it is on this that Jesus concentrates.
Perhaps I could put it this way: absolute secrecy is impossible for any of us. It is not possible to do, say or think anything in the absence of spectators. For even if no human being is there, God is watching us. Not as a species of celestial policeman ‘snooping’ in order to catch us out, but as our loving heavenly Father, who is ever looking for opportunities to bless us. So the question is: which spectator matters to us the more, earthly or heavenly, men or God? The hypocrite performs his rituals ‘in order to be seen by men’. The Greek verb is (*theathenai*). That is, they are in a theatre giving a performance, Their religion is a public spectacle. The true Christian is also aware that he is being watched, but for him the audience is God.
But why is it, someone will ask, that a difference audience causes a different performance? Surely the answer is this. We can bluff a human audience; they can be taken in by our performance. We can fool them into supposing that we are genuine in our giving, praying, fasting, when we are only acting. But God is not mocked; we cannot deceive him. For God looks on the heart. That is why to do anything in order to be seen by men is bound to degrade it, while to do it to be seen by God is equally bound to ennoble it.
So we must choose our audience carefully. If we prefer human spectators, we shall lose our Christian integrity. The same will happen if we become our own audience. As Bonheoffer put it: ‘It is even more pernicious if I turn myself into a spectator of my own prayer performance … I can lay on a very nice show for myself even in the privacy of my own room.’. So we must choose God for our audience. As Jesus watched the people putting their gifts into the temple treasury, (Mk.12:41 ff) so God watches us as we give. As we pray and fast secretly, he is there in the secret place. God hates hypocrisy but loves reality. That is why it is only when we are aware of his presence that our giving, praying and fasting will be real.
Tomorrow: Matthew 6:7-15. A Christian prayer: not mechanical but thoughtful.
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.