When You Fast...
Matthew 4:1-11 (ESV) Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “ ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “ ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’ ” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “ ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’ ” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.
As we read yesterday, in Matthew 6, the third and final “practice of righteousness” that Jesus identifies is fasting. This one is probably the least commonly practiced—and understood—of the three. Doing mercy to others? Check. Daily prayer? You bet. But fasting? That doesn’t sound very Lutheran! But check your Small Catechism (known as “the Layman’s Bible”), as well as the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:16-18, where Jesus says when you fast, not if.
At the same time, He does not make this into a new law that allows us to justify ourselves before God. Nor is he imposing an impossible burden on Christians that could harm them physically (for example, the church has traditionally discouraged fasting among pregnant women, young children, the elderly, and the infirm, for whom it might be detrimental). Rather, Jesus is inviting us to participate in a Christian discipline that He Himself took part in and that He promises to be a blessing to us (“your Father who sees in secret will reward you”).
Martin Luther commends fasting to Christians in the Small Catechism: “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training” before going to Holy Communion. But he then goes on to emphasize that these are not the elements that make us worthy of receiving the Sacrament. Only faith in the forgiveness of sins distributed in the Sacrament prepares us to receive it for our benefit, and only unbelief disqualifies.
Nonetheless, fasting can teach us several things. Most obviously, it shows us that we are mortal. We begin to hunger quickly and recall that we need food to survive. We would perish without it. This reminds us to prepare for death by living in repentance. But above all, it reminds us of where true life is found: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). Fasting leads us to hunger for true bread that satisfies, especially that bread that is Christ’s body, along with the wine that is His blood, in the Lord’s Supper.
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst… This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:35, 50–51). May we constantly hunger for this Bread and be satisfied as He comes to feed us in His Word and Sacraments!
1. O love, how deep, how broad, how high,
Beyond all thought and fantasy,
That God, the Son of God, should take
Our mortal form for mortals’ sake!
Of higher or of lower place,
But wore the robe of human frame,
And to this world Himself He came.
His holy fast and hungered sore;
For us temptation sharp He knew;
For us the tempter overthrew.
For us His daily works He wrought,
By words and signs and actions thus
Still seeking not Himself but us.
For us, in crown of thorns arrayed,
He bore the shameful cross and death;
For us He gave His dying breath.
For us He went on high to reign;
For us He sent His Spirit here
To guide, to strengthen, and to cheer.
For love so deep, so high, so broad;
The Trinity whom we adore
Forever and forevermore. Amen.