Generally speaking, fasting was never intended to be used as a badge of honor or as a mark of super-spirituality. It is almost always associated with sorrow for sin and an expression of humility before God alone. In spite of this, Pharisees in Jesus’ time had turned fasting into something of a performance art—expecting figurative applause and literal admiration for their ostentatious displays of humility.

Old Testament Law only called for fasting once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) when the high priest would make a holy sacrifice for the sins of the nation. In spite of that, religious leaders by Jesus’ time had added 108 required fasting days to the year!

Pharisees and other religious leaders insisted that the devout fast four times a year to commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. They also insisted on ritual fasting twice a week, every Tuesday and Thursday. To make sure everyone knew they were among the religious elite, those who fasted on these days made a point of exaggerating the outward signs of a fast: A disheveled, haggard look; some kind of mark on their faces—likely smeared ashes that added to a gaunt impression; and ashes poured over their head and clothing. As one Bible historian reports, “This was a pretentious way of letting others see and appreciate their extensive efforts to increase their godliness.”

Jesus roundly condemned this kind of spiritual-act-as-preening-exercise. Instead, he advised that fasting should be a humble, intimate moment between God and the individual person—not a public display of self-admiration.


Works Cited:

[RBD 373-374, ASB, 1568]



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