In Jesus’ day, if you went around with a sad face and thin hands, people would think you were devout, that you were worthy of respect and trust. Nowadays, if you even talk about fasting, people will think you have an eating disorder, or that you are trying to punish yourself, which, if we do have a difficult relationship with food, it may be best to fast from something else besides food, like TV or talking. But fasting is so completely not about punishing yourself.
In Jesus’ day, if you gave money to people who were destitute, you might hire a couple of trumpeters in the marketplace to draw attention to what you were doing. People would think you were devout and merciful, worthy of respect and trust.
Nowadays, if you give to the poor, and especially if you make a big deal about it, people will think you are foolish, even hypocritical.
So it would seem easy to follow Jesus’s instructions. Keep quiet. Don’t let anybody know you are a Christian. I am afraid, however, that it is not, in fact, easy to follow Jesus’s instructions, because Jesus still asks the same question. Even though the world has changed, Jesus’ question remains the same: What are you doing it for?
Why do we pray? Do we pray in an attempt to look good in front of people? Our families, ourselves. Maybe look good in front of God?
When we pray, we are deepening our awareness of God’s presence with us, and deepening other’s awareness of God being close.
We are actually putting ourselves in the hands of God, we, tiny mortal people, made of dust who will return to dust, put ourselves in the hands of the God who formed us out of dust, who breathed the breath of life into us, who breathes the breath of life into us again and again today. That’s what we are doing when we pray.
When we fast, we are not punishing ourselves. We are getting things out of the way. One simple, short fast people do is to skip supper. Drink a glass of water or two so you don’t get dehydrated. Take fifteen minutes or a half-hour to pray, maybe read a favorite Bible verse. Let yourself slow down. Sometimes people will have supper, then not eat at all the next day. Probably good to do some work, not think about being hungry. Drink plenty of water, or clear liquid if you have difficulty with low blood sugar.
This gives us a tiny glimpse of what it is like for people who consistently don’t have anything to eat. We’re hungry and we know we won’t eat today. We are closer to Christ who is with so close to them.
But take a half hour or an hour at some point to slow down. Make space to feel God close. Being empty is not a bad thing. There’s a space where the light can shine, where God can be, within which God can surround us.
When we give money, we help others to feel closer to God. The ELCA Malaria campaign is part of an international effort to combat malaria, which has cut malaria deaths by sixty percent since the year 2000. One in eight people in the world are hungry all the time. That is down from one in five in 1990. Still a ways to go, but we can feed everybody. When people eat, they feel closer to God.
Giving brings us closer to God. God has given us this tool, called money, to provide for ourselves and our families. When we give to God’s work in the world, we are saying, that we depend on God to provide for us, not just on the tool God uses. We depend on God, not money.
Again, we tiny, mortal human beings, dust which will return to dust, we lay ourselves in the hands of God who formed us out of dust, and breathed the breath of life into us, breathes it again and again every day.