The disciples of John approached Jesus and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matthew 9:14-15)
Fasting is as old as our faith and as new as today.
In just one line of scripture, Jesus speaks to us about the fasting of the ancients and its relevance today. For you and me.
Unlike the Pharisees who sought to entrap him, John’s disciples had a genuine interest in the truth about what they needed to do and were shocked that Jesus and his disciples seemed to be lax when it came to this spiritual discipline. Delicately and respectfully, they asked Jesus why his disciples were not fasting, as if Jesus himself, the Lamb pointed out by John, might be an exception to any discipline followed by others.
Jesus answered them as He did. He tells them that the fasting isn’t the problem; it’s the motivation and the timing of the fasting that is the problem.
The coming of Christ initiates what St. Paul called “a new and living way.” (Hebrews 10:20) And this new and living way doesn’t dismiss the discipline of fasting but transforms the motivation for fasting from mere rote habit to an actual participation with the Holy Spirit in the deifying work of God in my life. Let’s remember the word “deifying” because it is at the heart of today’s scripture.
God then tells them what he hungers for and instructs them to the type of fast that will get them to hunger for the same things. “This is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, … setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.”
God wants us to be starving for what he starves, for us to release his sons and daughters imprisoned unjustly, breaking the yokes that bind them to slavery and servitude, feeding his hungry children, clothing the naked ones, and in a particular way caring for our family members. Jesus himself would say that he had come to set the captives free. He would personally identify with all of those in such circumstances, reminding us we would be judged on how we responded to him in disguise when he was hungry, or naked, or imprisoned, or sick.
At the beginning of Lent, we are reminded that our fasting is meant to help us unite with those who fast everyday not be religious choice but by poverty and circumstances. It’s not only meant to help us to understand their lot better and engender compassion but also meant to help us to feed them. The food we don’t eat on a given day is not meant just to remain in our refrigerator for tomorrow but shared with those who have no food today.
The purpose of our fasting is to unite with Christ those parts of us that are not yet hungering for what God hungers and through the Prophet Isaiah God tells us very clearly what he hungers for. God wants us to be hungrier to care for the poor, needy and oppressed than someone who hadn’t eaten for days would be for a piece of bread.
Our fasting is to increase our hunger for what God hungers for, until every cell of our body desires what he desires. That is what we mean when we talk about the deifying work of God in our lives.
Prayer of The Day
Come Lord, work upon us, set us on fire and clasp us close, be fragrant to us, draw us to your loveliness, let us love, let us run to you.” (Prayer of St. Augustine)
What kind of fasting is pleasing to God? Fasting can be done for a variety of reasons – to gain freedom from some bad habit, addiction, or vice, to share in the suffering of those who go without, or to grow in our hunger for God and for the things of heaven.
Basil the Great wrote: “Take heed that you do not make fasting to consists only in abstinence from meats. True fasting is to refrain from vice. Shred to pieces all your unjust contracts. Pardon your neighbors. Forgive them their trespasses.” Do you hunger to know God more, to grow in his holiness, and to live the abundant life of grace he offers you?