Addison Hodges Hart’s new book Taking Jesus at His Word: What Jesus Really Said in the Sermon on the Mount is still a few months away from publication (June, 2012; available to preorder now). After reading his chapter on “The Practice of Fasting,” though, we couldn’t resist sharing a sneak preview of the book on Ash Wednesday.

(Please note that since the following excerpt has not yet been published, it may still be subject to changes before its release.) 

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Matthew 6:16“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

In Jewish practice, fasting and prayer went very much together. Jews fasted twice weekly, a custom picked up by early Christians. The traditional days for fasting, from the apostolic age onward, were Wednesday (the day on which Jesus was said to have been betrayed) and Friday (the day of his crucifixion). Jesus here gives no specific weekdays for fasting, but he assumes that his disciples will continue the practice. Fasting was thought to give greater intensity to prayer. In the spirit of the influential passage in the book of Isaiah, fasting was related as well to the needs of the poor and to almsgiving:

Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a man to humble himself ? Is it to bow down his head like a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am. If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. (Isa. 58:4-10)

Taking Jesus at His Word

Taking Jesus at His Word

With this passage, composed some six centuries before, we can glimpse the mind of Jesus as well. Just as Jesus condemned mere liturgy and religious posturing among the religious leaders of his day, Isaiah condemns those same things here. It was expected practice on special days of fasting to look drawn and haggard, to pull out the sackcloth and ashes, and to make a display out of the whole thing. The prophet points out the incongruity between the outward religious show on such holy days and the sort of quarreling and violence engaged in by the same persons the other days of the year. Instead, says the prophet, what God desires is righteous action in caring for the needy, the homeless, the hungry, and the oppressed. Real fasting is not just giving up food, and it certainly isn’t about showing off one’s best sackcloth wardrobe and fashionably ashen face; true fasting involves correcting injustice and acting compassionately. If you deal with those latter things, God will come to you.

There isn’t much difference here between that age and its religiosity and, say, the sight of a wealthy cutthroat of a Catholic or Episcopalian businessman who attends church on Ash Wednesday, gets his forehead marked with the traditional cross of ashes, noticeably fasts from meat and dessert, and goes about the rest of the day sporting the ashes on his face as a sign of his devotion. His business practices may be vicious most of the year, just barely honest, utterly dishonest, savagely capitalistic, and/or injurious to the less advantaged near and far, but his devotion on Ash Wednesday is heartfelt and even a touch sentimental. It makes him feel good; he gets to demonstrate his faith. Perhaps he’s a member of Opus Dei and attends St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or perhaps he’s a member of the Vestry of St. Thomas, Fifth Avenue. Perhaps he gave a fat check for the new pipe organ recently, and the organ has a big brass plaque with his name engraved on it. He’s renowned as a benefactor. The message of Isaiah to this man, and Jesus’ message as well, would be that none of this can be called true religion at all. True religion would be the transformation of the man himself, and that would be visible in how he conducted his business in the future. The story of Scrooge rests entirely on Jesus’ teachings, and those of Isaiah as well. The sign of the reality of this man’s religion would not be his religious activities but the practical details of his workday living. The other things — church attendance, the Ash Wednesday service, the brass plaque on the organ — may all have their place, and perhaps they might even suggest something worthy about the man. But how he lives and works, and not his expressions of piety, are what really and lastingly matter for the disciple of Jesus.

Jesus tells us that fasting — like almsgiving and prayer — is not something to be paraded. We are to keep our faces washed, and especially of those ashes after an Ash Wednesday service, and to put away the sackcloth. No one is supposed to know how “religious” we are. Real fasting means we give from what we have and learn to curb our appetites. Real fasting may mean eating less expensive food, not going to the swankest restaurants, and not being a practical narcissist. It may mean not buying the most elaborate cell phone on the market, the biggest car, the best entertainment system — maybe going without some of these altogether. Real fasting, especially in our consumerist culture, means to stand apart from the unthinking point of view that we are what we buy. We may need to reduce our time given over to entertainment and self-gratification in order to have time for others’ needs.

Fasting is not strictly a matter of food and drink. It has to do with how we eat, certainly; but also with how we travel, dress, furnish our homes, shop, are entertained, and otherwise pamper ourselves. What we save from cutting corners — from the practice of mindful fasting — may amaze us. From those saved resources we might find we can give more generously than we ever could before for the sake of those whose poverty would also amaze us, if we were to notice it.

Click here to preorder Addison Hodges Hart’s Taking Jesus at His Word: What Jesus Really Said in the Sermon on the Mount.