Practices not for Show

19 February 2008 Tuesday of the 2nd Week of Lent
Isaiah 1, 10, 16-20; Matthew 23, 1-12

In the Gospels today, Jesus warns us of doing things for show. We do have this interest for things external. Take for example fasting. Fasting developed a bad reputation in the Middle Ages. When there is a decline of the inward meaning of the practice, when people do not know what fasting is for, the tendency is to stress the only one thing left, the outward form. The ascetical practice of the Middle Ages that is devoid of spiritual meaning developed into just a law. We say, “We should fast! It is God’s command.” But we ask, why? And we don’t get an answer, except, “Do it, because it is a command.” The law gives security and a sense of manipulative power: when all follows, everything is fine.

And so Jesus points out today that we should look at the meaning of our external practices beyond the law. When we look into scripture, those who fasted were the stars of the Bible: Moses, David, Elijah, Esther, Daniel, Anna, Paul and Jesus. The great saints and Christians also fasted like Martin Luther, the Johns of different Christian sects: Wesley, Knox and Calvin. Why would these great people fast if there is no reason for the fast? Jesus points out: if you fast for show, for just following the law, people will be impressed by it, and that is the reward you get. However, if you fast, you fast privately, in your room. Why? Because Biblical fasting centers not only the physical benefits for it --- it is called a diet --- but it centers on spiritual purposes.

The first reading therefore teaches us the spiritual meaning of practices such as fasting praying and giving: it is supposed to help us return to God, to wash away our sins, to straighten our ways, and to help us grow spirituality. Jesus points out that we should look into our motives (Matthew 6, 16-18). It is easy to fast so that we can let God do what we want. We reinforce this when we tell people: Fast so that you will receive blessings from God. Or fast because it has some physical benefits, your prayer will be better, your will have spiritual insights. By having this motivation, we are user-friendly. We love the gifts, but not the Giver.

Fasting then should be centered on God: that we are enabled to fix our eyes on God. Thus, if we deprive ourselves of food, we realize that food does not sustain us, but God. “We are sustained by every Word that comes from the mouth of God,” Jesus said when the Devil tempted him. Remember Creation? Everything came into being by God’s very word. Therefore, when we fast, we are abstaining from food, but we are feasting on the word of God.

Therefore, Jesus tells us in the Gospel, that we should not look miserable when we fast. Because we are not miserable. We happily fast! We celebrate by fasting! We celebrate the Word of God. We celebrate God. So, when we fast, the proper attitude is joy because we are feeding from the hands of God!

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