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Matthew 6:17-18 1
17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Background

Here we sit embroiled in a man-made disaster of epic proportions.  Our world is under attack from an invisible killer, Covid-19 (also called the Corona Virus). Plagues and disasters of this type are not the first ones ever to impact mankind. Just read your Bible sometime.  So for this lesson, is there something we can learn to summon up the powers of our God to save our communities, countries from this virus? Or is it the real enemy? Is our own fear and divisiveness the real enemy to fear?

Fasting involves abstinence from food and/or drink for a period of time. Fasting was used to express grief (1 Samuel 31:13; 2 Samuel 1:12; 12:20-23) or penitence (1 Samuel 7:6; 1 Kings 21:27). It is also used to prepare the person for prayer (2 Samuel 12:16-17; Psalm 35:13) or divine revelation (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:9; Daniel 9:3; 10:3) or to seek the Lord’s favor (Judges 20:26; 2 Chronicles 20:3). The only fasting required by Jewish law had to do with the observance of the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16:29-31; 23:27).

In the past, the people of Israel complained that they had fasted and God had not noticed. God responded that their fasting had been self-serving (Isaiah 58:3-4). God added, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” (Isaiah 58:6-7).

So our Christ allowed fasting, even encouraged it. However, Christ’s kind of fasting was quite different kind from that of the Jews. In these two simple verses, we can interpret that fasting was not about an outward abstinence from food, and other conveniences of life, and refreshments of nature. Fasting was to be an abstinence from sin, the acknowledgment and confession of it; and in the exercise of faith and hope in God’s pardon for our transgressions and sin. As Isaiah had reminded the people of Israel, (Isaiah 58:6-7), fasting was about changing one’s heart, becoming more tolerant, more generous, more serving to each other.

So why would Christ say, “put oil on your head and wash your face?” To understand, lets take a quick view of Jewish law. To put oil on your head and wash your face directly contradicted Jewish laws. These laws (rules) forbid these things on fast days. The rules stated that on the day of atonement, a man is forbidden both eating, drinking, washing and anointing and the putting on of shoes and the use of a bed. When anointing was permissible, the head was always first. The reasoning was that because the “head” was king over all of the rest of the body. Anointing and washing were all meant to be signs of cheerfulness and joy.

Anointing the head with oil can have any of several meanings. It can be a sign of being set apart for a particular work (Exodus 29:7; 1 Kings 19:16; Isaiah 61:1). It can be a sign of well-being (Psalm 23:5). It can be done in conjunction with fasting or healing. In that setting, it was a common practice—normal behavior. Now when we add “and wash your face” (v. 17b), the action provides an outward display of well-being. Anointing one’s head and washing one’s face would help any person to convey an appearance of normality or well-being. The person who does these things would attract neither sympathy nor praise.

During these times when we are asked to sacrifice, to shelter in place, to meet in small groups, to even suspend the normal actvities of life, God asks us to consider how others will see you through this crisis. We are called to joyous duty for the benefit of God’s kingdon, to lift up those around us who are in need. Whether we do these things in public or secret do not matter because it is our God who we seek to please.

Items for Discussion

  • Can you think of things to add to your day that demonstrate normalcy to those around you?
  • What would be the visible signs in a person’s life that their life is normal?
  • What are your ideas to seek normalcy in an abnormal world that are visible, provide comfort to those who see and know us?
  • Who are those in our community that you would like to help?  How? What are your ideas?
  • Where does prayer fit in?
  • How does anger advance sin?
  • How do we yield to fear? How do we shield from fear?

Discussion Challenge

  • During a time of fear and social distancing, how do we keep Christ alive in this world?

 

Notes:

  1. NIV New International Version Translations
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