The Sermon on the Mount—“When Fasting, Grease Your Head”
AFTER discussing almsgiving and prayer, Jesus directed attention to a third major aspect of worship practiced by the Jews, namely, fasting. But before noting what the Son of God said on this matter, let us consider some background information.
Fasting was not mentioned specifically in God’s law through Moses. But the Law did command that on the Day of Atonement the Israelites “afflict” themselves, which is understood to mean fasting. (Lev. 23:27; Num. 29:7; see also Leviticus 16:29-31, Jerusalem Bible; compare Psalm 35:13; Isaiah 58:3, 5.) Though this was the only public fast required by the Mosaic law, the Israelites observed many others. They fasted publicly on anniversaries of national disasters and during times of drought, scarcity of crops, pestilence and war.—Zech. 7:5; 8:19.
Additionally, certain persons would undertake voluntary, private fasts to seek special favor from God or when mourning. (2 Sam. 12:16) The fast might be for a single day or for a much longer period. Jewish tradition specifies that the actual abstaining from food took place, not for an entire 24-hour period, but just during daylight hours. Usually individuals would undertake such voluntary fasts only in dire circumstances.
But it was different with the Pharisees. According to a parable of Jesus, certain members of that religious fraternity took it on themselves to “fast twice a week.” (Luke 18:12) The usual days for these fasts were Monday and Thursday. Evidently the Pharisees believed that voluntary fasts held on a regular basis would bring blessings from God and avert national calamities. As an indication of the extremes to which some might go, the Babylonian Talmud relates concerning a rabbi who lived during the first century C.E.:
“R[abbi] Zadok observed fasts for forty years in order that Jerusalem might not be destroyed, [and he became so thin that] when he ate anything the food could be seen [as it passed through his throat]. When he wanted to restore himself, they used to bring him a fig, and he used to suck the juice and throw the rest away.”
JESUS’ COUNSEL ON FASTING
Jesus began his counsel about abstinence from food by saying: “When you are fasting, stop becoming sad-faced like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting.”—Matt. 6:16a.
Jesus never commanded his disciples to fast, and they were known as not doing so on any regular basis. (Matt. 9:14, 15) On the other hand, the Son of God did not direct his followers to avoid the practice altogether. The expression, “when you are fasting,” indicates that some of his disciples would fast on special occasions.—See Acts 13:2, 3; 14:23.
But never should they “disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting.” The hypocrites to whom Jesus referred purposely appeared “sad-faced.” They neglected the appearance of their faces during fast-days, probably by not washing or grooming and by sprinkling ashes on their heads. Their real motive in doing so was “that they may appear to men to be fasting.” They enjoyed the admiring glances and approving nods of fellow humans who were impressed with their external display of piety.
As in the case of persons who made a show of almsgiving and prayed in public so as to be observed by men, Jesus said of those who fasted for similar reasons: “Truly I say to you, They are having their reward in full.” (Matt. 6:16b; compare 6:2, 5.) Rather than getting blessings from God, admiration of fellow humans was the whole of their “reward.” It was received “in full” and God would add nothing to it.
“But you, when fasting,” continued Jesus, “grease your head and wash your face.” (Matt. 6:17) Rubbing the body with oil and washing were regularly practiced by the Jews. However, Jewish tradition forbade doing that on public fast-days such as the Day of Atonement and the ninth day of the fifth month, Ab (the anniversary of the destruction of God’s temple in Jerusalem). The Pharisees took it on themselves to observe similar prohibitions during their voluntary fasts twice a week. However, if the occasion might arise when Jesus’ listeners would desire to fast, they were to ‘grease their heads and wash their faces,’ that is, look normal.
As to the reason for this Jesus stated: “That you may appear to be fasting, not to men, but to your Father who is in secrecy.” (Matt. 6:18a) They must please, not men, but God, who is “in secrecy,” far removed from the gaze of human eyes. Hence, there would be no need to give visible evidence of fasting.
But Jesus assured that, though humans might not notice and praise one who refused to make a public display of fasting, “your Father who is looking on in secrecy will repay you.” (Matt. 6:18b) God is indeed “looking on,” observing how his servants carry out their worship. What counts with God is, not an external show of pious deeds, but sincerity of heart coupled with deeds of loving-kindness toward one’s fellowman. (1 Sam. 16:7; 1 Chron. 28:9) Regarding fasting Isaiah wrote:
“Indeed you people were finding delight in the very day of your fasting, when there were all your toilers that you kept driving to work. Indeed for quarreling and struggle you would fast, and for striking with the fist of wickedness [due to being irritable from hunger]. Did you not keep fasting as in the day for making your voice to be heard in the height? Should the fast that I choose become like this, as a day for earthling man to afflict his soul? For bowing down his head just like a rush, and that he should spread out mere sackcloth and ashes as his couch? Is it this that you call a fast and a day acceptable to Jehovah?
“Is not this the fast that I choose? To loosen the fetters of wickedness, to release the bands of the yoke bar, and to send away the crushed ones free, and that you people should tear in two every yoke bar? Is it not the dividing of your bread out to the hungry one, and that you should bring the afflicted, homeless people into your house? That, in case you should see some one naked, you must cover him, and that you should not hide yourself from your own flesh?”—Isa. 58:3-7.
Jesus assured that God would “repay” those whose occasional fasting was properly motivated. That repayment far exceeds anything that humans can give. In fact, for those hearers of the Sermon on the Mount, it held out opportunity to gain immortal life in heaven as part of God’s Messianic kingdom.—Luke 22:28-30; John 14:2-4; Rev. 20:6.