Moreover when you fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces…
As, of the three specific admonitions regarding our personal religious exercises, the first on "the manner of almsgiving," and the second on "the manner of praying," have had their gracious treatment; so now the third follows, on "the manner of fasting. We have not here any express injunction to fast, nor had we any to give alms or to pray. In each case the prefatory words are in the same form, when thou doest thine alms;" "when thou prayest;" and now, "when ye fast." However, not only is there not one disparaging word uttered at the expense of fasting, but directions are given for the right observance of it; and, above all, it is to be noted that it is ranked with the two ever undisputed duties and virtues of the Christian life, viz. charitableness and prayer.
I. THE OSTENTATION OF SANCTITY IS STRUCK AT. No two things could less agree, no two extremes less conceivably for one moment meet.
1. The very origin and reason of fasting disallow display; for its design is to search out and reckon with certain discreditable, subtle tendencies and temptations to sin, ever too actively working in the body, and through the lower appetites of our nature, and unfailingly warring against the soul - hindrances to religious life, the poison of devotion. Of the genuine, solemn attempt to sap the strength of such enemies within as these, who could dare to take opportunity to make parade? And if the solemnity of that attempt be nothing but an occasion of seeking the praise of men, and itself an "art of deceit," what can measure the guilt of the vanity of that "hypocrite"? The spiritual vanity, and yet more the spiritual pride, that sows itself in the spare soil of fasting, only then good if spare, is too sure, by the surest Nemesis, to grow a crop, briar, bramble, thistle, malignant in their fertility.
2. The meagre littleness of human sanctity, at its best, disallows display under any conditions. Nothing so certainly proves to demonstration that littleness as any proffer of ostentation on the part of it. Sanctity can only grow in the prevailing sense and overshadowing conviction of that Divine holiness from which exclusively it comes, and by the side of which it is meantime ever reduced to a drop in the ocean. "Fasting," said one of old, "should show you, but not you your fasting." And again, "Christ says not, 'Be not sad,' but 'Make not yourselves sad of countenance.'" And, once more, "If he who fasts, and makes himself of a sad countenance, is a hypocrite, how much worse he who does not fast, yet assumes a fictitious sadness of face as a token of fasting!"
II. THE NATURAL METHODS, OF HONEST MOTIVE AND OF DEEP RELIGIOUS DESIRE, HELD UP FOR IMITATION. The unconsciousness of daily habit is recommended by Christ for the outward appearance of the man most deeply convinced of the need of strenuous measures to cope with spiritual danger within. The sable garb and habit may well be left unstudied, unaffected, unput on, because of the sabler penitential habit of the heart. No "artifice of deceit" is anything but out of place and out of season, except it be that most skilled artifice of all, to make the least show of self, and over self's own sacreder self to throw the concealing veil of voluntary retiringness. The man who fasts as a Christian and for Christian purpose is not to proclaim it by word or by sign, nor is he to proclaim it at all. If in the light of his life it proclaims itself by his own light, he is then free from the responsibility of the disclosure, and it will be found that he is the very last to know of that disclosure.
III. THE EVER-OBSERVING EYE, WHICH MEN MAY RIGHTLY OBSERVE. Having guarded against all possible variety of danger that may arise from men's notice, or our own supposition of it, consciousness of it, or craving for it, our one legitimate desire and "contrivance" in the matter should be that nothing divert, distract, or disturb the singleness of eye that should feed its gaze on God - himself secret from the world, accepting and receiving us secret from the world. Where singleness of eye and simplicity of heart and transparency of motive are so indistinguishable from one another, one look aside from God, one moment relish for human praise, one listening for report of self, will dispel the holiness, and the holy fruit of any spiritual exercise. It is to the eye that is as unseen as it sees, as kind as it is searching, as searching as it is all-seeing and everywhere seeing, that the one safe appeal of our eye is to be directed, for guidance here, for encouraging approval here, and for its final unerring award. - B.
Parallel VersesKJV: Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
WEB: "Moreover when you fast, don't be like the hypocrites, with sad faces. For they disfigure their faces, that they may be seen by men to be fasting. Most certainly I tell you, they have received their reward.