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MATTHEW vi. 16-18.
“ MOREOVER WHEN YE FAST, BE NOT AS THE HYPOCRITES,
OF A SAD COUNTENANCE: FOR THEY DISFIGURE THEIR
In these words our Lord resumes the general subject of his discourse. The three principal topics of animadversion are almsdeeds, devotions, and the mortification of the flesh, for the advantage of the soul. To acquire the reputation of being eminentiy righteous and charitable, the Pharisees caused their gifts to the poor to be proclaimed by a trumpet ; to obtain the admiration of the multitude for extraordinary piety, they selected public places for private prayers; and for the same miserable reason, they took care to manifest every indication of austere humility on days of voluntary fasting. All this outward parade and will-worship He who knew the heart, utterly condemned: not, indeed, charity to the poor, supplication to heaven, or the salutary abstinence from
food for religious ends, but the mercenary exhibition of these virtues, by a hand that never relieved the destitute, a tongue that never prayed, and a body wholly unaccustomed to the practice of self-denial.
Such is the obvious connection of the passage with the preceding part of the chapter. The Divine Teacher shows first, how deeds of mercy ought to be done; next he speaks of devotion--and, to preserve his followers from the “ vain repetitions” of the heathen, he furnishes them with an outline, which the fervour of their spirit should fill up. And, inasmuch as he introduces a duty somewhat new, and of essential importance in the code of Christianity, he stops for a moment to state it more distinctly, and enjoin it more fully. This is the duty of mutual forgiveness, of which the two verses preceding the text make mention. The motives by wbich it is impressed upon us are most powerful and affecting. It is an exemplification of one of the loveliest dispositions which men can cherish in this lower world: it is a plant of Paradise, inserted in this earthly wilderness, which diffuses a balmy fragrance all around; it is a virtue of the highest order, and confers a nobler dignity on its possessor than all the splendid equipage of royalty, or the honours of empire. The meanest reptile can resist an injury, or repel an attack; but it is celestial to forgive it. Such a benign temper accords with the benignant spirit of the gospelis in harmonious agreement with the mind that was in Christ-and, when it is founded on the principles of the Christian faith, it becomes a conclusive and scriptural evidence of our having obtained mercy.
Passing from this subject, the Redeemer comes to the one which is now under consideration, and follows the same line of remark as in the preceding. He specifies and condemns the ostentation of the Pharisees-exhibits the unprofitable issue of their devotions—and closes the
whole by some plain and pertinent directions for the guidance of his disciples. Such are the particulars of the present discourse. May the Divine Spirit assist our meditations, and render them subservient to the promotion of Christian truth throughout the world. In the discussion of the subject, thus disclosed to our notice, I shall offer,
I. A FEW REMARKS ON THE PRACTICE OF FASTING AS IT EXISTED AT THE TIME OF OUR LORD.
In its ordinary signification, fasting is an abstinence from food; but in connection with religion, it is the voluntary abridgment of our bodily gratification for the improvement of the soul in holiness. In some degree or other, it has thus been professedly used among most nations, from the remotest antiquity. Certain writers have assigned it a date as early as the creation, and have even adduced the prohibition given to our first parents, not to eat of the tree of knowledge, in support of their opinion. But be that as it may, although this notion seems mere fancy, yet thus much is unquestionable, that the Jews practised it at a very early period of their religious institutions. Nor was the custom confined to Judea, it spread over all the neighbouring countries, which were immersed in idolatry; so that the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Assyrians had their appointed fasts. Some of these nations always blended it with prayer and sacrifice to their idol deities. Ancient history relates, that the Egyptians, before their periodical oblations, invariably fasted many days, even to the number of forty, and at the least seven; during which time the priests and devotees not only abstained from flesh, fish, wine, and oil, with every other luxury of the table, but even from bread, and some kinds of pulse. These austerities were communicated by them to the Greeks, who adopted nearly the same manner.
Among the Athenians its observance was extremely rigorous, especially by the women, who sat a whole day on the ground, in a mournful dress, without taking any nourishment. But with respect to the Jews there was one annual fast throughout all their land; of this we have a particular account in their sacred history: “ And the Lord spake unto Moses saying, Also on the tenth day of this seventh month there shall be a day of atonement: it shall be an holy convocation unto you; and ye shall afflict your souls, and offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord. Ye shall do no manner of work: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings. It shall be unto you a sabbath of rest, and ye shall afllict your souls: in the ninth day of the month at even, from even unto even shall
There were, however, other fasts frequently holden on occasions of extraordinary calamities and threatening judgments. Thus, when several nations came against Jehoshaphat to battle, he “ feared, and set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.”+ So, likewise, the prophet Joel, during a period of great alarm, addressed the priests of the sanctuary: “ Sanctify ye a fast, call a solemn assembly, gather the elders, and all the inhabitants of the land, into the house of the Lord your God, and cry unto the Lord.”# The same was commanded at Nineveh, when the people were roused to a sense of their danger by the awful denunciations of the prophet Jonah. S
But there were private fasts also among the Jews. Men of eminent piety commonly mingled either a partial, or total, abstinence from food with their extraordinary supplications. Thus we read of Nehemiah, with respect to the desolation of the holy city, that he “ sat down and wept and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven."* So also Esther commanded Mordecai to “gather together all the Jews that were found in Shushan, to fast for her, and neither to eat nor drink three days, night or day;" adding, “ I also and my maidens will fast likewise; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law: and if I perish I perish.”+ “ David humbled his soul with fasting," and poured out his desire before the Most High. It is recorded, likewise, of Daniel, that he " set his face to the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplication, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes.”And of Anna the prophetess, that “ she served God with fasting and prayers.” Of the Pharisees and the disciples of John it is expressly said, that they
* Lev. xxiii. 26, 27, 31, 32.
+ 2 Chron. xx. 1-3. Joel i. 14. Jon. 11.5.
“ fast often;"'S and we read that some did so “ twice a week.” Monday and Thursday were the days selected for it, because it was supposed, that Moses ascended the mount to receive the law on the latter of these days, and returned with it on the former. From these instances it is, therefore, obvious, that the custom prevailed widely throughout all nations at the period of the Saviour's incarnation.
II. THE SINFUL AND UNPROFITABLE MANNER IN WHICH THE JEWS OBSERVED IT.
Here let us observe two things :
First. Their ostentation. They devised, according to the text, every artifice to proclaim to the world that they were keeping a fast. They adopted every emblem of grief and symbol of mourning, which was usual in the east, on the death of relatives and friends. They assumed a dismal and gloomy aspect,—disfigured it by making it black; and they affected all the melancholy of the deepest woe. Instead of the costly habits which they generally wore,
* Neh. i. 4.
+ Esther iv. 16.
# Dan. ix. 3.
Matt. ix. 14.