The first two examples of Christian piety that Jesus gives in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount do not seem particularly difficult. They are giving to the poor and praying. To most people, almsgiving and prayer make sense and are familiar, even though they may not understand them completely or practice them. This is not true of Christ’s third example. The third example is fasting, which means abstaining from food for some spiritual end. Not only does this not seem necessary to most persons, to many it even seems quite foolish or absurd.
Contrary to these ideas, Jesus assumed that fasting would be practiced by His disciples. And, what is more, He even gave instructions about it. He said, “Moreover, when ye fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance; for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face, that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father, who is in secret; and thy Father, who seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly” (Matt. 6:16-18).
The easiest (but also the most superficial) way to make fasting come alive to a Christian living in our time is to tell stories of some who have practiced fasting for some definite financial goals. That is, those who have used the money saved by fasting to help others.
One such story comes from the days I spent studying in Switzerland. There was an American couple in Switzerland in those days whom I got to know during the first year of my program, who were probably the most financially pressed of any American family I encountered. They had an abiding concern about being able to complete their three-year program. It was well justified, for their resources were very limited, and if they should run out of money before the end of their three years there were no adequate university grants or scholarships to fall back on. At one point, however, this couple learned of the far greater difficulties of an Asian student who was also in the theological program. His lack of means was so desperate that he was on the verge of being forced to abandon the program and leave Switzerland. When my friends learned of it, they began to marshal help among the American community and then actually contributed themselves. Another friend who knew their situation asked them, “How are you going to find money to help the Asian student when you are so pressed for money yourself?” They answered, “We’ll just fast one day a week.”
I know of one other case involving a girl who was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. She had been very much impressed by a series of church services on missions and, as a result, wanted to contribute to the support of a girl her own age who was going to North Africa. She didn’t think it was right for her to take money her father was giving her for her education to do this, however. So she skipped lunch twice a week in order to send the lunch money. Later in another school, she worked on the telephone exchange in order to continue her commitment.
Both of these stories tell of those who fasted for a specific reason. They make sense. But, unfortunately, they are not a great deal of help to us personally. For one thing, many of us are so far from the level of need revealed in these stories that fasting doesn’t even enter into the picture. We can generally meet the needs that we are sensitive to out of income, not to mention our investments or savings. Moreover, when a person reads of fasting in the Bible, as here in the words of Jesus, it is clear that financial reasons for doing without food for a period of time are not really under consideration.