Put oil on your head and wash your face

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” — Matthew 6:16-18

With Ash Wednesday coming this week, a lot of people are thinking about what sort of sacrifice they might make for Lent this year. The practice of giving up something for lent, while not precisely a biblical mandate, nevertheless has its roots in the ancient practice of fasting.

In recent times it’s become somewhat fashionable to expand the notion of fasting to giving up any sort of practice that takes focus away from God. People will fast from watching television, using Facebook, eating ice cream, drinking soda…there are any number of ways one can “fast” by this definition.

And while on the surface there’s nothing wrong with that, the biblical model for fasting is to abstain from food. Period. Nowhere in scriptures does it say to give up Facebook for Lent.

I did a little research in preparation for my upcoming visit to Harmony-Zelienople UMC this weekend to speak at their youth group’s 30-Hour Famine event. It seems there’s really only one command regarding fasting in the Hebrew scriptures, and that’s for the Day of Atonement (it’s mentioned in Leviticus 16 and 23 and in Numbers 29). And it’s very clear that the Israelites were to abstain from eating and drinking specifically.

It’s also clear, however, that people fasted in the Bible on a number of occasions besides the Day of Atonement. It was a very common spiritual practice, and it was primarily considered a means of repentance. Contrary to our contemporary belief that connects fasting with some sort of “spirit quest” a la Native American practices, in Jesus’ day fasting was understood to be something people did to demonstrate to God that they were changing the direction of their lives (repent literally means to change one’s mind and purpose).

Fasting as an act of repentence also makes it an act of cleansing. Hence Jesus’ instructions to “put oil on your head and wash your face” in Matthew 6:17. John the Baptizer told people to repent and be baptized. Repentance leads to transformation. Becoming a new person. Washing away the old person.

And so, for this Lenten season, I’d like to invite you to join me in a weekly fast for repentance and transformation (I’m doing juice & water only…feel free to choose a fasting method that works best for your health). Every week between now and Easter, I plan to engage in a fast from sundown on Thursday to sundown of Friday (a typically Jewish timeframe). The purpose for those of us who participate will be to engage in repentance–to change our minds and purposes–and to seek more fully the kingdom of God.

If you’ve fasted before, you know how powerful the practice can be. If you haven’t, I encourage you to try it. 24 hours is actually a pretty easy amount of time to engage in a fast. Heck, you get to sleep through a third of it!

If you choose to join me in this journey, please use the comment section here or join the conversation on my Facebook event page to share the experience with others, to seek encouragement, or just to discuss any insights you receive as a result of this ancient and holy practice.

3 thoughts on “Put oil on your head and wash your face

  1. I’ve been thinking through this issue a lot lately, I even wrote a comment but accidentally closed the page. In looking at the idea and practice I do have a few questions pertaining to it’s integrity. As you pointed out in Jesus teaching on the matter, our goal is not to draw attention to our “holiness”, but in doing this fast, is that not what we are doing? Admittedly, there are, as you also pointed out, community/public fasts on specific days in the Old Testament. But it seems to me, that fasting, as Christ describes, is to be a private matter, then again, I do not think it is that simple. The purposes of this fast, the ones stated and the ones assumed, are honorable and biblical. Obviously, the stated objectives (repentance and seeking more fully the kingdom of God) are biblical and corecct, then I think there are some assumed purposes for the fast, but they are not selfish. The assumed purpose is not for attention, at least as I can tell, but it would appear to be more in line with the idea of fasting in community and repenting as a community and as individuals, the second perceived reason, I think, is accountability, a major issue I face when fasting. However, I cannot help but come back to the public nature of the fast, which brings be to 30 Hour Famine. I recall the first couple of years doing the famine we were encouraged to be public and daw as much attention to ourselves as possible, I felt then, and still maintain, this was wrong. My goal is not to pick on 30HF, because I think it’s true goal is not what, at one time, we made it, but serves at a minimum, two great purposes; first, introduces both youth and entire congregations to the practice of fasting(but it should teach on the matter in a more sound fashion), second, raise awareness and money for those in poverty and nutritional need. So, on saying all this, my goal is not to pick on your Facebook “sponsored” fast, especially considering I am joining, but to ask these questions because I don’t know the proper answer.

    • Wade: An excellent and very legitimate question. I’ve honestly struggled deeply with that issue myself as I’ve promoted this fast. I’m sure the same question has arisen in others’ minds.

      I think the answer lies within the larger context of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount in Matt. 5-7.

      Jesus is not specifically stating that these things (fasting, prayer giving) MUST be done in private. If that were the case there would be no corporate prayer, no missional fundraising, etc. What he’s saying is that it’s a matter of the condition of our hearts, which IS private, at least to the extent that only God can know the true condition of our hearts. Jesus calls out the “hypocrites,” who do things SOLEY to be noticed by others…their hearts are concerned with their own selfish interests, not with the kingdom of God. I think what Jesus is saying is not so much to fast in private without anyone else knowing…as you correctly point out, that would go against the biblical mandate to fast in community…but to say, in essence, “just go about your business…you don’t have to make a show of how miserable you’re making yourself to gain God’s favor.”

      Admittedly, there is a fine line when it comes to corporate fasting such as what I’m promoting here and what things like the 30-Hour Famine are doing. Again, though, I think it comes back to the condition of our hearts. If we are sincerely participating, and even calling others to participate with us, so that we may engage in authentic repentance and seeking of God’s kingdom as a community, I don’t see that as being contrary to either the letter or the spirit of Jesus’ words.

      In the case of the 30-Hour Famine, especially when we actively sought publicity, I think that line does become a little finer. I would hope that the publicity was to draw attention to the cause for which we were symbolically fasting, and not to the act of fasting itself, although–again admittedly–it’s really hard to separate one from the other. I think the fact that what was displayed was the joy of the participants to do something positive for the kingdom, rather than on the nature of the sacrifice itself, legitimizes it in the light of scripture.

      I’m sure not everyone will agree with my take on this, but I think it’s great that it creates these kinds of questions and conversations. That’s how we know we’re taking the scriptures seriously…by engaging them and one another in trying to better understand them. Thanks for the comment!

  2. When I received the Facebook invitation for the weekly fast, I interpreted it simply as an invitation to join with fellow Christians in a practice aimed at cleansing, repentance, and drawing closer to God. I don’t view it as a public display of sacrifice, or as a way of drawing attention to myself (or the group). This fast is something I will do privately, but with the knowledge that I can share my experience with others who are also fasting, as well as learn from their experiences. The “community” aspect for me lies in sharing and fellowship, and not in seeking attention.

    I’ve participated in close to 15 30-Hour Famines (as both a youth and as a youth group leader). I’ve taken photographs, written press releases, and have even appeared on television talking about our efforts. In high school, I was one of 10 students selected nationally for final judging to participate in the annual overseas mission trip (missed it by a HAIR!). But you know what? At no point did we attempt to make the focus about ourselves — our mission was to raise money for the hungry, and to raise awareness about the difficult situations so many people face in our country and throughout the world. The fasting was a private act experienced within a group setting; the coming together was a display of Christian love and fellowship and an example of what can be accomplished — what can be borne of that Christian love.

    Wade, I wonder if your question might be rooted in the public nature of Joe’s invitation, rather than the idea of a community fast? I’m certainly not dogging social media, but there’s something inherently narcissistic about Facebook (and Twitter and the others), so perhaps it seems a little showy. But as Joe said, it’s all about the conditions of our hearts.

    Interesting discussion!

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