Read Matthew 6:16-18
16 “And when you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and dishevelled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. 17 But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. 18 Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. (NLT)
In Jesus’ time, fasting was one way to help focus on God. One reason for this was that food preparation and consumption took much longer in the pre-microwave era. So a lot more time could be spent on seeking God if one were to go without food for a time. In our day, the time element may not be as critical, though some Christians practise fasting as an exercise in discipline and self-denial.
Jesus’ point is not really about fasting in and of itself. He is addressing the issue of religious hypocrisy. Earlier he has warned against showing off in praying and giving money. Now he warns against making fasting a way of showing off. Some who fasted were making themselves look miserable and deprived so as to impress others with their piety. A good thing had become a bad thing.
Jesus says that God is the only one whose opinion counts. Don’t try to impress others with how much sacrifice you are making, with how costly your faith might be. In our day we might warn people against trying to act like martyrs, making sure that others know just how much we are suffering for God.
We have no need to show off like that. Self-denial is meant to bring us closer to God, not win us popularity contests.