"When ye fast be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance." — Matt. 6:16.
IN OUR TEXT our Lord is not expressing any disapprobation of fasting; quite to the contrary; He is endorsing it as a propriety. Undoubtedly it is better for the health to fast somewhat at times rather than to eat to satisfaction. The Master's comment, according to the context, seems to be based upon the improper conduct of the Pharisees. The fasting was supposed to be good not only for physical health, but also for mental and spiritual health. The Pharisees, professing to be very holy, made manifest their holiness by fasting, subordinating the flesh that they might be spiritually strengthened.
Our Lord does not dispute the propriety of such a course, but it was the wrong spirit that He condemned. For when the Pharisees fasted, many of them did it to be seen of men, in order to seem holy and given over to spiritual things. Hence our Lord's suggestion that when His disciples fast they should not be as the hypocrites, whose fasting and long faces were to show men their piety. In the same connection our Lord proceeds to say that when His disciples fast they should do the very reverse; that they should anoint their heads and be as cheerful as possible.
We can see the philosophy of this course. If their fasting had brought them nearer to the Heavenly Father it should have made them more gracious and luminous. It should have had a happifying effect, which would have shown itself in the countenance. The thing reprimanded, then, was the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who assumed a sadness of countenance to be seen of men. They delighted to have people say, "What a holy man! He has fasted so much! He is always thinking about holy things and, in order to do this, he is even denying himself the necessities of life. He is a very holy man!"
The followers of the Lord are to practise such fasting as will be seen of the Lord and not of men. The Father, who knows the heart, will appreciate our efforts to draw near to Him and will grant our desire. But these things should be hidden to the outside world and known only to God; and the joy of the Lord should be manifest in the countenance.
HOLINESS OF THE HEART NOT A MERE OUTWARD FORM
Our Lord's frequent reference to the Pharisees, no doubt, was in part owing to the fact that the Pharisees were a very large and influential class; and in part because their name signified that they were the holy people. Hence, when our Lord was teaching special obedience to God, the question in the minds of the people would be, "Is He not a Pharisee, and do not the Pharisees teach all these things?"
So it became necessary for our Lord Jesus to show wherein some of these things that the Pharisees practised were not proofs of their special nearness to God, and that they were not leaders to holiness, but that it was very evident that many of the Pharisees were hypocritical. Their holiness had become a mere form; it had degenerated into a custom—as the Scriptures say, a "Drawing near to the Lord with their lips, while their hearts were far from Him," and thinking merely of the general attitude they had toward the world, the people in general.
We remember that there were some very noble Pharisees—Nicodemus, and Joseph of Arimathea, who buried our Lord, and St. Paul, who tells us that he was a Pharisee. But evidently the greater part of them had made broad their phylacteries and were more anxious in respect to what men would think of them than what the Lord would think of them. Perhaps some of the hypocrisies of the Pharisees have been practised since by some in the Monastic Order, where they wished to show their special separation from the world by the wearing of a peculiar garb, by a special cut of the hair, by seclusion, etc. There is danger along this line in the observance of the Lenten season by some of the Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans. But it may not be hypocritical with all.
ABSTEMIOUSNESS SPECIALLY HELPFUL DURING LENT
In many respects it would be a very good thing for all the Lord's people to follow the Lenten custom of fasting, doing so with as little outward demonstration as possible, practising it as unto the Lord, without considering it a thing to be mentioned, without attracting attention, but merely as a privilege. The Lenten season comes at a time when abstemiousness in food seems particularly appropriate. As the cold of winter sharpens the appetite, in order to the resistance of the lower temperature of that season, so, in the spring, less carbon is needed, as there is not so much cold to resist; hence it would seem advantageous to practise fasting, more or less, in the Lenten season.
We have in mind the fact that the Lenten season represents the forty-day period of our Lord's experiences just preceding the crucifixion. We might enter sympathetically into this matter and think of the trying experiences that were upon the Master when He knew that He was drawing near to the time of His death. As we try to think of Him it will enable us better to realize what a privilege it is to endure hardship as good soldiers for the sake of His Message.
Fasting is specially commendable to the Lord's people at times when they find themselves lacking in spirituality and exposed to severe temptations from the world, the flesh and the Devil; for, by impoverishing the physical force and vitality, it may assist the full-blooded and impulsive to self-control in every direction. We may believe that a majority of Christians would be helped by occasional fasting—by a very plain diet, if not total abstinence, for a season. But fastings to be seen and known of men, or to be esteemed in our own minds as marks of piety on our part, would be injurious indeed and would lead to spiritual pride and hypocrisy, which would far outweigh any advantage to us in the way of self-restraint.