"Sit down and eat your chicken, rice, green beans, and salad." One mother saying these words to her child might mean: "You’ve eaten so little today. I am telling you to sit down at this dinner table and eat the amount and kinds of food that will nourish your body. The same words to a different child might mean something else, however. The exact same command might mean, "You have already eaten so much junk today! I am telling you to sit down at this dinner table and eat the amount and kinds of food that will nourish your body."
The words of Jesus in our text today about instructions on fasting might mean something different to Jesus’ first audience than for us today. Though the Day of Atonement was the only requisite day of Jewish fasting, the faithful would also fast for various occasions including mourning, repentance, or even national penitence. Some would make a great show of their fasting to be seen by others; they would look unkempt and even don pale makeup to emphasize their pallor. Jesus exhorted these people to freshen up! Fasting which is invisible to others, Jesus promised, is recognized by God.
What’s striking from a twenty-first century perspective is that Jesus assumes His audience is fasting! Fasting wasn’t an ancient regulation with no bearing on the Christian life. Rather, the message for believers today is that God recognizes the heart of those who—discreetly!—forego food or drink, or Facebook or television, in order to focus their attention on things of God.
Jesus’ word to us today about fasting might remind us to take up this practice in order to deepen our relationship with God. We do this to please our Father, not to impress anyone around us by our show of holiness.