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In order to illustrate the problem with judging others. Jesus uses a humorous, even absurd, exaggeration. It makes no sense to condemn someone’s small error if you have a larger error in your own life.

The word usually translated “speck” (κάρφος) is a bit of straw or word, a small splinter, or even “a tiny foreign object in a wine cup” (BDAG). The word translated “log” (δοκός) is a heavy beam used to construct a roof or to bar a door (BDAG). In Josephus’s Jewish War, this word is used to describe a Roman battering ram (JW 3.124).

The contrast is therefore between a tiny insignificant thing, maybe something that is irritating but not really that noticeable and a massive piece of wood that is impossible to miss. John Nolland says this is a scene of “grossly selective perspective” (Nolland, Matthew, 320). The hypocrite only sees one thing, perhaps an issue they consider to be the most important issue of them all, but it is a mere speck compared to a major sin (likely hypocrisy itself) in their own life.

If we deal with “the log in our own eye” are we permitted to condemn others for their speck? Probably not. Jesus is certainly exaggerating, and has been described as ironic or even sarcastic here (Geulich, Sermon on the Mount, 352-3). There are several important observations to be made here.

First, if one is able to actually see what sin they do have in their lives, then they should be more concerned with dealing with their own sin than nit-picking minutia in another person’s life. There is something essentially hypocritical about pointing out another person’s sins when you are unwilling to deal with the same sin you your own life.

Second, if one is dealing with their own sin, they ought to be more sensitive toward people with similar problems. This is of course not always the case, especially if a person is guilty of a “grossly selective perspective.” Jesus’s disciples need to deal with sin, but knowing the extent of one’s own shortcomings must lead to a sensitive and gentle correction.

Third, this is not “blanket tolerance or moral indifference” (McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 230). Jesus is not saying “nothing offends God so love everyone and everything they do.” He is saying that in an ideal Christian community, there will be enough love and grace among the brothers and sisters that condemning one another will not even be a possibility.

Fourth, the follower of Jesus needs to think about the impact of our condemnation of sin. If a person has been caught in sin and is publically shamed as a result, that is not permission to pile on our own gossip and rage toward the person. Likely as not, they are going through a personal hell as their life falls apart, the individual brother or sister in Christ does not need to fan the flames (probably through verbal sins of their own).

The result taking one’s own problem is that we will “see clearly” (Τότε διαβλέψεις). “See clearly” it to have one’s eyes open wide and looking intently at something (BDAG), perhaps with a clear understanding of what is being seen. Perhaps Jesus is suggestion the one who has dealt with a particular problem can gently correct a fellow disciple since they have experienced the same forgiveness. In fact, the very fact the Lord’s Prayer includes forgiveness ought to be a warning against jumping to judgment too quickly.

Maybe you have had an experience where someone was picking at some minor problem in your life and you knew the person was a hypocrite. Sadly this often is a parent, a pastor or teacher. It may have been a case of “do as I say, not as I do.” My sense is most people will read Jesus’s exhortation to “remove the log from our own eye” as referring to those encounters with hypocrites. But I do not see Jesus narrowing this down to only “those other people.” He tells his closest disciples they need to focus on their sin rather than looking for specks to pick out of someone else’s eye.

American culture can fairly be described as a culture of condemnation and judging. Despite the pop-culture commitment to not judging others (“haters gonna hate,” “only God can judge me”), the culture we live in judges everything we wear, everything we say, and everything we do.

“Like it or not, you are being judged by how you look, how you dress, and how you carry yourself—and, if you’re lucky, how you do your job. As uncomfortable as it may be, we are under the microscope every day. Our employees, our colleagues, and our customers judge us by how we look, how we dress, our table manners, our grooming, and sometimes even how we do our job.” Ty Kiisel, Forbes OnLine, March 20, 2013.

These may be superficial judgements about fashion choices, but sometimes judgment runs deeper than the surface. Blondes are ditzy, fat guys are jolly, white girls like Pumpkin Spice lattes; tall people play basketball; people with glasses are smart, etc.

In this section of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus tells his disciples they should NOT judge. For those who hear this teaching out of context, they assume Jesus means we ought not to judge anything or anyone as wrong. Pop-culture turns this verse into the central teaching of Jesus, despite the fact there are plenty of people Jesus judges (Matthew 23, the condemnation of the Pharisees, for example).

As in English, the Greek verb “to judge” has a wide range of meaning. The word can refer to deciding between two options, such as a decision in a legal matter or in an argument between two people. It would be virtually impossible to not judge between two choices in life (I judge apple pie is better than chocolate cake, and opt to eat the pie every time.) Society has to have some system of justice, which implies someone will have to judge between right and wrong legally. Christians have long struggled to work out how to interpret and apply this commandment to “not judge.” “All these examples show how this commandment of the Sermon on the Mount was ‘domesticated’” (Luz, Matthew, 350).

There is nothing quite like this saying in Jewish, although a few parallels are often suggested. m. Abot 1:6 B “And give everybody the benefit of the doubt” and m. Abot 2.4 “And do not judge your fellow until you are in his place.”

Often, “judging others” is taken as condemnation on superficial issues. If I do not like the way a person dresses, I ought to refrain from condemning the person. Think of the church’s attitude toward long hair and bears on men in the 1960s. People with tattoos used to be scandalous, now it is no problem if the pastor has a tattoo. In fact, a tattoo might be a job qualification for doing youth ministry.

 

Rather than prohibiting any judgment of a behavior as good or bad, a follower of Jesus ought not to presume to be in the place of God and pronounce a person as condemned. The saying is less about “I think your clothes are ugly” than looking at a person’s lifestyle and judging them as condemned by God. Jesus’s followers should be more interested in reconciling people to God than condemning them as sinners in the hands of an angry God.

By way of application, “evangelists” who go to college campuses and hold up signs declaring homosexuals as damned to hell are not doing any good. Think of the typical rescue mission in movies like Guys and Dolls: you have to listen to the sermon condemning you for being a drunkard and gambler before you can get some soup and coffee. On the other hand, a ministry like Craig Gross’s XXX church reaches out as non-judgmentally as possible to people struggling with pornography and works with people in the porn industry (at their “Porn & Pancakes” events, for example).

The corollary of this is also true: judging someone by their lifestyle and assuming they are right with God. A person who appears to be a solid Christian may not have a relationship with God at all!

The difficult problem is balancing moral discernment and personal condemnation (McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 227). It is easy enough to state the Bible condemns a particular sin (adultery, drunkenness, etc.) but quite another not to personally condemn the sinner. Pennington adds the word “unfairly” to his translation: “Do not judge unfairly.” (Pennington, Sermon on the Mount, 256). Since the English word “judge” is almost entirely negative (practically equally to “condemn”), Pennington adds the modifier to get at what Jesus meant.

If we judge, Jesus says the same standard will be used against us. This saying implies the person who presumes to stand in the place of God and judge whether a person is condemned or not does not live up to their own standards. There are plenty of examples of evangelists or politicians who condemn some sexual sin as loudly as possible and are later caught in the very sin then condemned.

The ultimate example of non-judgmental outreach to sinners for the purpose of their reconciliation with God is Jesus, a “friend to the sinner.” Jesus eats with tax collectors and other sinners (Matthew 9:9-13, for example). This is more complex than “love the sinner, hate the sin.” When we model our lives after Jesus we will treat everyone with respect regardless of our view of their lifestyle.

How does this work in the real world? Is it possible (for you) to reach across cultural, social and religious lines and “be the love of Christ” to someone who is radically different? How does a Christian make a moral stand on an issue while also treating a person who disagrees with that moral stand with love and respect?

Jesus contrasts how the Gentiles seek after material needs with his own disciples (6:32). A Jewish writer would contrast Jews and Gentiles in this way. Jesus says the Gentile world frets over their needs (and more, they seek treasure on earth, they serve Mammon (6:24). This is more than materialism, the verb is “eagerly seek” (ἐπιζητέω). The word has the connotation of craving for something, an earnest pursuit of a goal.

In contrast to what the Gentiles seek, the disciple of Jesus is to seek the kingdom of God (6:33). Jesus uses a similar word “seek” (ζητέω) for the pursuit of the Kingdom of God.

Defining the Kingdom is a difficult problem since it can refer to the Old Testament kingdom of God, or God’s general rule of the universe. For a Jewish disciple of Jesus, the “Kingdom of God” would be the coming restoration of a kingdom to Israel, ruled by a messiah who will in many ways be a new David, or a new Joshua in that he rescues Israel from her enemies. But in other ways he is a new Moses or a new Aaron, leading Israel out of the wilderness of her long exile, providing a new covenant which God will enable his people to keep (he will fix their hearts, Jeremiah 33, Ezekiel).

In many ways, the death, burial and resurrection resulted in an inauguration of that Kingdom. In the Ascension Jesus is enthroned in heaven ruling, but there are other ways the kingdom is absent from the world. We do not live in a world in which all people acknowledge the lordship of Jesus (Phil 2:5-11). This is an in-between-time: God has inaugurated his kingdom with Jesus’s death, but will consummate it at some point in the future.

Two important observation follow from this. First, the disciples did not know about this lengthy gap between the inauguration and consummation of the Kingdom. Second, the church is not the kingdom in any real sense and does not fulfill the prophecies of the kingdom from the prophets. We can draw some application from “seek the kingdom of God,” but it is wrong to read this line as commanding the Christian to “establish the kingdom.” That is not even what Jesus says!

In addition to seeking the kingdom of God, the disciple of Jesus is to see God’s righteousness. This could refer to the righteousness of the kingdom of God, “its righteousness.” Most recent translations understand this as “God’s righteousness.”

Righteousness is an action in Second Temple Judaism. For example, in Micah 6:8 God has shown man what he is to do, the first is to “act justly.” This word is translated as either righteous or just, even if these are different categories in English. A righteous person (in the context of Micah, the Old Testament, and Second Temple Period Judaism) did righteousness, they took care of the poor, the widows, the orphans and immigrants.

Christianity tends to think of righteousness as a state of being, we “are righteous” by not sinning or doing acts of spiritual discipline. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is not what Jesus would have meant when he said “seek the righteousness of God.”

There are many examples of how a disciple of Jesus pursues the things of God in a way that is countercultural to the world. That Jesus welcomes tax collectors, prostitutes, and other sinners to eat with him is a clear act of mercy towards those who are on the fringes of Jewish culture. The way we think about social issues can be “seeking God’s righteousness” that flies in the face of the modern, western worldview.

Perhaps the application of “seeking the kingdom” ought to be doing real acts of justice toward those who are in need, so they do not need to worry about what they will eat or drink. How can local churches become involved in local acts of mercy which impact their community?

Jesus warns against worry three times in this section of the Sermon, each time giving an illustration concerning why worry is wrong and a brief command based on that illustration. If the birds are well fed, the God will see to our food (6:26-27). Jesus points to the birds of the air, probably pointing to birds that his listeners could see as he spoke. These birds don’t plan their harvests or work fields, yet they are fed, and fed by God. That God feeds the animals is an OT idea, see here (cf. Job 38:41;  Pss 104:10-15; 147:7-9; Ps. Sol. 5:8-11).

If the lilies of the field are well dressed, then God will see to our clothing (6:28-31). It is possible Jesus could gesture to flowers right where he was speaking. Lilies do not need to work to sew their clothes, yet they are “more beautiful than Solomon in all his splendor.” Even the grass is beautiful, even if it is temporary. God has created plants which will be pulled up and burned, how much more will he care for you?

“What are we to eat” (v. 31) are the words of someone who has nothing. If the disciples find themselves with no food or drink because they are being persecuted on account of Jesus, they can know God will provide for them.

Although there are no clear allusions to the story, God providing for his people is at the bedrock of Old Testament theology. In Exodus 15:22-17:7 God provides both water and food for his people in the wilderness. Manna was “bread from heaven,” food given to the people from the hand of God each day. But they were only to gather enough manna for each day, focusing their attention on God’s daily provision. The Israelites in the wilderness were to look to God for their “daily bread” (Matt 6:11).

There is an eschatological aspect to God’s provision of daily needs. For some (Guelich, Sermon, 370, for example), this is an allusion to the physical bounty of the coming kingdom of God. Certainly this is true, but if Jesus is preparing his disciples for future persecution, the his focus is on the coming tribulation prior to the establishment of the kingdom in (what is now) our future.

At the end of the final teaching section in Matthew, Jesus describes himself as the Son of Man coming with all his holy ones, setting up a throne for judgment and separating the nations like a shepherd separates sheep from goats. He praises the sheep for providing food and clothing for the “least of these brothers of mine,” and condemns the goats because withheld food and clothing for these same brothers.

There is a warning here that the basics of life may be withheld because of human sin. This helps to explain why Christians suffer from privation, pervasive evil in governments prevent relief from reaching people who need it.

As with Matthew 6:25, this is a very difficult for the most of the western, affluent church to fully appreciate since they do not lack for much. I confess that although I think I rely on the Lord, I also have retirement savings and a health care plan. I do not think these things are bad, but is it possible for these sorts of personal savings distract my attention from how the Lord is providing for me daily? What are some other ways the affluence of the western church can distract us from God’s daily provision for our needs?

How is it possible not to worry about tomorrow? Some people are more prone to worry than others, so that reading this passage will make you feel a little guilty for being anxious (or overly spiritual if you are one of those chill people who never seem to worry about things). Like most things in the sermon, Jesus is describing the ideal disciple who finds balance between having the basic necessities of life and one who is driven by the pursuit of wealth.

The problem Jesus addressed in Matthew 6:25-34 was excessive worry caused by misplaced loyalty. In Matthew 6:19-24 Jesus described the ideal disciple as “storing up treasure in heaven.” It is impossible to serve both God and money, and it is dangerous to be stingy with any wealth God has given to you. “Therefore,” Jesus begins in verse 25, “do not worry your physical needs in this life.”

The problem with wealth (treasures on earth) is that the quickly become an end to themselves rather than the means to an end. The danger of accumulating wealth is found in the Old Testament, Jewish Wisdom Literature, and virtually every culture which has stopped to consider the dangers of wealth.

Ecclesiastes 5:11 (ESV) When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?

1 Baruch 3:18 those who schemed to get silver, and were anxious,  but there is no trace of their works?

“The more property, the more care.” Hillel, m. Aboth 2:7.

“Poor man wanna be rich, Rich man wanna be king, and a king ain’t satisfied, ‘til he rules everything.” Badlands, Bruce Springsteen

“It’s like the more money we come across, the more problems we see.” Mo Money Mo Problems, The Notorious B.I.G.

Jesus is not recommending his disciples not prepare for the future or take the time to prepare for the next day. “For the contemporary person who has grown tired of the constant Christian justification of possessions and who is suspicious about the emphasis on the supreme value of work, the text offers a glimpse of an alternative way of life” (Luz, Matthew 1-7, 348).

But when the basics of life consume the disciple with anxiety, then they are wholly distracted from what they ought to be seeking, the kingdom of God and the righteousness of God. For the people following Jesus in Galilee, it is likely they were living in poverty. They likely did worry about how they would feed their family or how they would pay their taxes.

Jesus has already said his disciples ought to be storing up treasures in heaven. If the disciple of Jesus doing that, then there is no need to be anxious about the basics of life. The verb “be anxious” (μεριμνάω) refers to being unduly concerned over things. The object of the worry is “your life.” This refers to every aspect of life, including the physical aspects Jesus mentions. Most importantly it includes the mental and spiritual processes crippled by worry. Jesus is saying the disciple should not be so anxious over things which God has already provided for.

Both Paul and Peter make similar warnings against worry (Phil 4:6-7 and 1 Peter 5:7). For Paul, worry is the opposite of contentment. Philippians 4:6-7 says the follower of Jesus should not worry about anything, but present those worries to God through prayer, with thanksgiving. Writing from a Roman prison in a situation which might very well end his life, Paul models the balance between worry and contentment.

McKnight points out the anxiety and agitation of Martha in Luke 10:41. She is so concerned about proper hospitality she has forgotten to sit at Jesus’s feet and be taught, as her sister Mary was (Sermon, 218). Some people are like Mary (not worried about anything but Jesus) and other are like Martha, concerned with all the things which need to be done they miss out on what Jesus wants to teach them. To have no care at all about personal needs is as foolish as being consumed with worry.

Jesus makes the shocking statement, at least by contemporary standards, that life is more than food and clothes (6:25) Jesus offers three illustrations of “earthly cares” (food, drink, and clothing). These are the basic necessities of life. For Jesus’s original listeners and the original readers of Matthew, basic daily needs were not guaranteed. The readers Matthew are Jewish Christians who will be soon undergoing persecution and their basic necessities are in jeopardy. Tomorrow they may not have a home, the next day they might not be able to afford food.

In the context of modern western life, these things seem minor since we have all our basic needs met. We are more likely to worry about making a car payment. Bur for the majority world, many do not know where their next meal is coming from, or do not have access to clean water, or may only own a few items of clothing. Have modern western Christians developed “misplaced loyalties” because they have so much wealth? I realize the average college student feels they live in poverty, but they have shelter and food (and often gain that freshman fifteen!) Yet people are anxious about everything! How does this teaching of Jesus work speak to the problem of worry and anxiousness even in the western world?

Jesus continues the theme of loyalty to God: one cannot serve two masters. Service here is to be a slave, not be employed. It is possible to be employed by two masters, but not to be a slave. Slavery requires complete devotion, a slave was to be 100% disposable to his master. One cannot give 100% to two different persons, so a slave cannot serve two masters. By way of analogy, imagine a baseball player who is trading to a new team, but wants to continue serving the old team. If he were to do things to help the old team, the new team would be furious. Imagine a player trying to wear his old uniform with his new team.

The reference to loving one, hating the other probably implies that he serves both, but is not devoted to both. One of the services is hypocritical and shallow, the other is genuine, but not one hundred percent.

The ESV and NIV translate μαμωνᾶς as money. The KJV transliterated the Aramaic word (מָמוֹנָא). BDAG suggests this was a Canaanite loanword originally meaning “food, maintenance, provisions” (מון). In Luke 16:9, 11 the word simply means money.  Mammon is not the name of the “demon of materialism.” Some Aramaic Jewish writings translate Proverbs 3:9 as “honor God with your Mammon” and Deuteronomy 6:4 include Mammon in the list of things which can be used to love God.

Nevertheless, Jesus is personifying money and possessions as the opposite of God, one can either choose to seek first money or seek the kingdom of God.

Jesus reflects the general teaching of wisdom literature on the proper use of wealth (Prov 3:9), although without the promise of material blessing in the future. As with the first saying, there is a hard edge of coming persecution in Jesus’s claim one can only serve one God. As his disciples are persecuted, they will have to choose between their possessions and God. Under threat from Rome, disciples can either choose the nice home and comfortable life, or God and his kingdom.

This is an important (and convicting) application of Jesus’s words for modern America. If there was a government sponsored attack on the church that forced a decision to following Jesus and give up our wealth as a church, what might we choose? If standing firm on an issue cost a church their tax-free status, would they continue to stand firm?

Jesus never says wealth is evil nor does he demand his followers all join him in a voluntary vow of poverty. But he does call his followers to live a life of simplicity, to hold their possessions lightly, and to dedicate themselves to pursuits which result in eternal profits.

 

Just a short note on this very difficult saying. Although it is between two sayings on wealth, the connection to wealth is not clear to most modern readers. First, ancient people thought the eye illuminated the mind. The science is not right in the analogy from a modern perspective, but it is from the first century way of thinking about how an eye works. Second, “healthy” and “unhealthy” are metaphors for generosity and stinginess in Deuteronomy 15:9 (“your eye is wicked” (וְרָעָ֣ה עֵֽינְךָ֗), LXX: καὶ πονηρεύσηται ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου τῷ ἀδελφῷ σου) and Proverbs 22:9 “a good eye” (טֽוֹב־עַ֭יִן).

Deuteronomy 15:9 (ESV) Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, ‘The seventh year, the year of release is near,’ and your eye look grudgingly on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin.

Proverbs 22:9 (ESV) Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.

Third, In Matthew 20 Jesus tells a parable of workers in the field. Those who grumble about the owner’s generosity are envious (NIV) or “begrudge” the generosity of the owner (ESV). Literally, this is “your eye is evil because I am good” (ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου πονηρός ἐστιν).

A “good eye” and a “bad eye” are therefore contrasting metaphors for how one perceives wealth. A generous person who does not hold their possessions too closely is a light in the world, in contrast to the utter darkness of the one who hoards wealth.

“Treasures on earth” are material possessions. A rich person would be known by their expensive clothes and jewelry as well as large and expensive homes. A moth (σής) destroys clothing (which is why we use cedar chests and moth balls to keep them away). Sometimes this word is translated as “wood worm” since moths really only destroy clothing, which is not specifically mentioned by Jesus. Rust (βρῶσις) destroys metal, although gold and silver cannot rust (silver can tarnish, but that is different than rust). “Rust” was translated “worm” or “vermin” in some translations (NIV 2011) since it refers to eating or consuming something. A third risk to material possessions is theft. All we are doing by storing up treasure on earth is keeping it for someone to break in and steal. In each of these three examples, material possessions are temporary. Even the most durable treasures like gold or silver will fade away or be stolen by others.

The contrast is with “treasure in heaven.” The things which destroy earthly treasures cannot harm heavenly treasure. Jesus is speaking metaphorically, our good deeds do not generate literal wealth in heaven (and it is certainly not being assembled into a great mansion for you to live in when you get there!) Jesus says our loyalty and behavior should reflect a heavenly perspective, not a temporal earthly perspective. The idea is that all behavior is either for God or not, with no in between ground. You are either storing up treasure in heaven or on earth, and the disciple is to be about the business of storing up the treasures in heaven.

Scrooge McDuckThe concept of “treasures in heaven” was common in Jewish thinking, Jesus is using a metaphor that would have been understood immediately by his listeners to mean proper God-honoring behavior.

This is important because our earthly treasure reveals our true loyalties. Jesus says that wherever your treasure is, there your heart is also. What he means is that most people are smart enough to know where they are getting their rewards, and that they will put their effort into the place where they are gaining reward. Salesman make their money by selling, so a good salesman will get to know what kind of person is there to buy and which is there to browse. In a similar fashion the disciple is being told here to know which behaviors and attitudes are worthy of heaven and stick to them.

Scot McKnight draws a contrast between the wealthy and powerful Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57) and the wealthy young man whom Jesus told to sell all his possessions (Matthew 19:16-30). Joseph was focused on the coming kingdom and used his wealth wisely, the young rich man could not (Sermon on the Mount, 207).

Since Jesus has already warned his disciples they will be persecuted on account of the r testimony, this warning on wealth is especially important. When the Jews were persecuted in Rome, the first phase was loss of possessions. For some of the early Jewish Christians this was enough to drive them away from Christianity and back to Judaism.

Hebrews 10:32-35 indicates some Jewish Christians in Rome had been subjected to insult and confiscation of property. If possessions really indicate the content of one’s heart, then Jesus warns his disciples to not place their confidence in material possessions since those will not endure. These disciples live out this principle in the book of Acts. They live a voluntary life of poverty as they await the return of Jesus. This sometimes involved selling property (land, etc.) in order to support the community (Acts 2:45; 4:32-5:10).

Jesus’s words are perhaps shocking to American Christians (especially at Christmas, when this could be considered treasonous!) Rejection of western materialism is difficult since we like to have “nice things.” Wealth is not inherently evil, but the love of money is indeed the root of all evil.

As he did with almsgiving and prayer, Jesus redefines fasting as a private act of worship. Jesus assumes his disciples will fast since he says “when you fast.” But the true disciple of Jesus will practice fasting in a way which does not draw attention to themselves. Quite a few years ago I had a friend start a ten-day fast. I remember this because he reminded every day (sometimes several times a day) that he was fasting. It is like the old joke, how do you know someone is a Vegan? Talk to them for five minutes.

Spirital FastingWhen the hypocrites fast, everyone knows what they are doing. The hypocrites “destroy (ἀφανίζω) their faces, a verb which means to render something unrecognizable, even “wear a disguise.” The Pharisees “seem to don masks during their fasting” (BDAG). Perhaps they wore older clothes or even sackcloth to appear to be in great distress after a long fast. The hypocrite wants people to know they are fasting so they are thought to be especially spiritual. Just like the one who makes a demonstration of almsgiving or public prayers, everyone knows the person is fasting.

Unlike the hypocrites, Jesus tells his disciples not to look like you are fasting. Jesus says his disciples should not “look somber” of “gloomy” (σκυθρωπός). The only other place this word appears in the New Testament is Luke 24:17, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus looked gloomy after the crucifixion. In LXX Psalm 37:7 (ET 38:6) the verb describes a person who is in mourning.

The person who is fasting should would wash daily, but the hypocritical person might not wash at all in order to appear in more distress. Jesus says, “Clean yourself up and look normal” when you fast. More than looking normal, Jesus seems to advise appearing to be “not in mourning.” Anointing one’s head was done as a sign of joy (Ps 23:4), perhaps more than daily personal cleanliness (it is more special than “use shampoo and conditioner).

Is there really spiritual benefit to fasting? Augustine said “Do you wish your prayer to fly toward God? Give it two wings: fasting and almsgiving.” (Cited by Wimmer, Fasting in the New Testament, p. 114)

As should be clear from the overview of biblical fasting, the practice does have a place in the Christian life as a spiritual discipline.

One important observation about Jesus’s teaching on fasting is that did not cite any examples of people who have fasted in the Old Testament, Moses or Elijah, nor did he put his own experience forward as a model of how to fast. Although there are people who have completed forty day fasts, this is not the normal practice in the ancient world and it is never presented as a model for modern Christians.

It is not the case that a longer fast is “more spiritual” than a short fast, or that a total fast is better than a fast during the day with a small meal in the evening. Like communion, whatever you do, do it to the glory of God.

McKnight offers two very important warnings about fasting. First, churches should be very careful about how the present fasting because eating disorders are dangerous and some people may be negatively impacted by a period of fasting. Second, fasting is not abstaining from some particular activity (such as giving something up for Lent). Even though people go on an “internet fast” or a “TV fast,” this is not at all what the Bible is talking about (McKnight, Sermon, 202).

As Jesus commanded, fasting should be a private practice as much as possible. It is possible for a faith community to use prayer and fasting when coming to an important decision. Like Paul and Barnabas, perhaps a day of fasting and prayer can be used for appointing leaders or commissioning people to ministry.

In addition, churches could consider a day of fasting in response to a terrible event in the life of the community, or even in the life of the nation. McKnight suggest a time of prayer and fasting in response to a natural disaster or terrorist attack. The point would not be an attempt to manipulate God into action, but to focus the attention on God in response to the disaster.

But if someone decides to go through a period of fasting, they last thing they ought to do is announce it for all to hear, or sigh loudly when they are hungry, or go out to lunch and not eat in order to make every one aware of their spiritual discipline.

Those who fast ought to focus on their response to God, not in order to create a spiritual experience. This is not biblical, even though fasting can put one in a psychological place to have a spiritual experience.

I would love to hear from some readers on their own experience with fasting as a spiritual discipline. How does a private fast differ from a public demonstration? How does fasting focus one’s spiritual thinking?

Of the three disciplines in Matthew 6:1-18, fasting is the most difficult because evangelical Christians have been hesitant to participate in fasts. For most, they would prefer a good potluck to a fast!

However, fasting was common in the ancient world and is still an important spiritual discipline for many religious people. The practice of fasting is considered a critically important method for getting in touch with spiritual things. For example, Bonhoeffer said “Satiated flesh is unwilling to pray and unfit for self-sacrificing service” (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 158). McKnight considers this an example of the instrumental view of fasting: one fasts in order to gain some spiritual benefit. But he also states clearly this view of fasting is simply not found in the Bible (McKnight, Sermon, 193).

Jesus does not command almsgiving, prayer or fasting. He simply assumes his disciples will do these basic spiritual disciplines. What he commands is a re-thinking of the how these commonly practiced spiritual acts of worship should be done. In all three cases he turns the focus away from the one doing the act and toward God.

What did it mean to fast at the time of Jesus?

In the Old Testament, fasting was required only on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29-31, 23:26-32), Acts 27:9 simply calls the Day of Atonement “the Fast.” But there are other examples of fasting in the Old Testament in response to either an important or terrible event. The death of a loved one is often associated with “sackcloth and ashes,” perhaps fasting as well. In 1 Samuel 31:13 the people of Jabesh Gilead mourn the death of Saul by fasting for seven days. In 2 Sam 1:12, David and his men fasted and mourned Saul and Jonathan (although this fast only lasted until the evening). In Judges 20:26 the people fasted before the Lord all day before a battle the following day. In 1 Sam 7:6 Saul commanded a fast until a battle was won (although this is considered a rash vow). The people responded with fasting in response to the judgment of God in the exile (crises Isa 58:3-5; Jer 14:12; Zech 7:5). This is similar to the fasts in Esther 4:16 and Ezra 8:23. Psalm 35:11-16 is an example of responding to oppression. David has been attacked by “malicious witnesses” and his response is sackcloth and ashes (cf., Psalm 69:10-11). For Second Temple period Jews, fasting had been encumbered by additional regulations.

There are a few examples of fasting in the New Testament which is not associated with mourning. In Luke 2:37 Anna is described as fasting and praying in the Temple. Paul and Barnabas are appointed to a mission after prayer and fasting (Acts 13:2-3) and Paul and Barnabas appointed elders only after a time of prayer and fasting (Acts 14:23). Paul refers to fasting in 2 Corinthian 6:5 and 11:27 although he may mean a time of hunger since it is in a list of suffering he has experienced.

Luke 5:33 states John the Baptists and his disciples “fasted often,” as do the Pharisees (Mark 2:18/Matt 9:14). In contrast, the disciples of Jesus did not fast in the same way.

The Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), on Thursday and Monday. According to tradition, Moses ascended Mount Sinai on Thursday and descended on Monday. Those two days were the “market” days, when Jerusalem was the busiest, and fasting would have the largest audience. The early Christian church manual Didache 8 says “But do not let your fasts coincide with those of the hypocrites. They fast on Monday and Thursday, so you must fast on Wednesday and Friday.”

Fasting was important in the early church and is mentioned thirty times in the New Testament and it is never condemned. As in the Old Testament, fasting marked times of sorrow or prayer, often accompanying a decision. Keeping the Old Testament texts cited above in mind, a person might fast during the day and have a small meal in the evening.

Polycarp, To The Philippians 7.2 Therefore let us leave behind the worthless speculation of the crowd and their false teachings, and let us return to the word delivered to us from the beginning; let us be self-controlled with respect to prayer and persevere in fasting, earnestly asking the all-seeing God “to lead us not into temptation,” because, as the Lord said, “the spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak.”

 

Bibliography: N. K. Gupta, “Fasting,” page 270 in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Second Edition).

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Christian Theology

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