Today we pick up on part three of passages that go together within the Sermon on the Mount. Each follows the theme of people doing the right thing in the wrong way. Even our acts of righteousness can be hypocritical. Today we look a fasting.
We live in a world where fasting may be understood more as part of a intermittent dietary pattern to keep people in a state of ketosis or to reduce cholesterol. There are religious holidays like Ramadan, Tisha B’Av, or Yom Kippur, and to a lesser extent, Lent where people obtain from eating (and in some cases, drinking, smoking, sexual activity, and even medication) as participation in holiness preparation.
If you’ve never fasted, even for blood work or surgery, then it’s possible that you are over-identified with your impulses to eat, or other appetites. Hunger and thirst particularly stress the mind-body relationship. Just reducing carbs or sweets alters one’s sense of well being and exposes our lack of personal control over the impulses of our bodies. Appetites are not good gauges for what we need. Fasting, is a discipline that allows us to regain a measure of control over the impulses of our humanity.
World religions have used fasting to drive us beyond just the mind-body connection and into deeper spiritual awareness. There is something about our creaturely habits and satisfying our impulses without conscious engagement that numbs us to our greater reality. Fasting is a discipline that forces the necessary redirection of our minds back to something more important than our own comfort. This is why it is seen as an act of righteousness, or a spiritual practice.
The problem with fasting is that there are many ways to cheat. Simply modify the fast, shorten the terms, nibble just a little bit, cut a corner here or there to remove the uncomfortable edge. The other way to cheat is to go through the motions, but resent the whole process. This means you really only care about your physical comfort and not about the spiritual awakening or inner experience with your Maker. Going through the motions is a complete waste of time, unless your goal is to impress others.
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6:16-18
For the third time, Jesus is deconstructing religion. He’s not saying that ritual is wrong or unnecessary. Ritual can help us to access deeper reality. What he’s saying is; if we are going to embrace religious practice, we must do it without the need to be seen by others. We are to take our religion “inside” to the secret (hidden/ cruptoi) place.
For those that regularly attend church, temple or mosque, Jesus is putting you on notice. If your ritual, even your presence there, is for the sake of others and not God, then you make your religion hypocritical. Imagine hearing this from within the mind of a Jewish person. Scholars tell us there were over 25 fast days per year. Following Jesus command would cause you to be immediately marginalized. Try telling a muslim that the rules of Ramadan fasting are not needed in order to have a pure faith. Try telling a Christian to wipe the smudge off their forehead after Ash Wednesday instead of parading around all day.
How many of you sit in your religious services and wish you were somewhere else? Jesus is actually saying that you don’t need to be.
Cheating a fast is pointless. If your goal is to find God and use austerity or fasting to force you into a deeper place, but you fail to find that deeper place because you are too distracted by your discomfort, or you are trying to make others think you are so great, then you are twice the fool. Not only have you missed out on creaturely comforts, but you’ve missed the larger goal of communion with God. It’s all hypocritical, and there is nothing to be gained by it.
This can take different forms. Have you ever seen someone who is smug about their hybrid or electric car? The pretense of saving the environment is only secondary to wanting others to think they are environmentally conscious.
Maybe you can afford a much nicer house or more comfortable existence for your family, but you don’t want people thinking you are trying to display your success. You think you are being modest, but you are actually only doing it because of what others might say. This is hypocrisy towards modesty. False modesty is not at all modest. It’s like the person who tells you how humble they are.
It’s not enough to do the right thing. A hypocrite does the right thing in the wrong way or for the wrong reason. If the motive within the heart is not pure, the deed will always be corrupted. Giving, praying, or fasting can all be righteous things, but with the wrong motive, they are anything but good, and they are fruitless or “false” (pseudo) deeds. This principle is precisely why so many people feel like they are always trying to do the right thing but then it never seems to go well for them. This is because doing right with the wrong motive is actually doing wrong. (Matthew 7:21)
Motives are a big deal. It takes maturity and soul work to expose and work on our true motives. Our pride likes to control outcomes and to look good (persona). This is the impulse (the default mode) from which we must learn to fast. Seek rather to override that impulse with surrender. Let’s turn loose of the outcomes in our life. Let’s stop trying to control or manipulate things in our favor. Let’s stop trying to impress anyone. Simply just be. Learn to forgive reality for being what it is and once we accept the consequences of surrender, we will finally experience the real reward, the reason for all our discomfort. God will meet us within our secret, hidden place.
I think institutional religion has too often made us just like Esau. We sell our birthright for a bowl of soup. Religion has made it too easy for us to forfeit true spiritual progress in exchange for our religious performance. To really hear the words of Jesus, I suggest that you fast from your religion. Take three to six months off of church, temple or mosque. Stop doing your liturgies, mantras, and wrote prayers. Stop attending services, and giving your money and time. Put down your prayer book, roll up your prayer matt, and set the bible aside for a while. Preserve only that deep, hidden, secret place of communion with God. Let everything else go. Turn off the TV and step away from social media and tech.
Within a day our hypocrisy and motives will emerge. Our fears and malware scripts will bubble up and torment us. Behind it all is a faith that has been in the Neonatal Intensive Care unit since its birth. It’s a fetus that has been hooked up countless props of artificial life. Let it all go and sit in your secret place where we are never alone. From this place of being, watch what emerges. It will be you, only truer, stronger, and liberated. It will be the real you, finally able to discern the world and truly live.