Jesus does not say if you fast, but when you fast. In other words, our Lord presumes that fasting will not disappear in the liberty of choice or the fog of adiaphora but will continue among His people. When you fast means just that -- you will fast and when you do make sure you do not draw attention to yourself for your fasting. The same could be said about almsgiving and good works. Jesus never says that these practices of piety should cease but that the drawing of attention to them is unseemly and renders its own reward. We need to take care with what Jesus actually says and what He does not say.
I say this because Ash Wednesday will soon be on our minds and the Gospel for Ash Wednesday includes the warning against a piety only public and without the humility of faith in the heart. So I think it might be a good time for us to consider the other holy day coming up -- Candlemas (the Presentation of Our Lord and the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary).
In the Gospel for the latter, we hear of faithful Anna. Anna’s piety seems rather odd to us today but she is commended for that piety. Such a piety does not go out of style or get replaced by the freedom of the Gospel to do as we would please. So we read of Anna that “She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying.” Never mind the part about worshiping night and day -- we have long ago given up that idea to 59 1/2 minutes on Sunday morning a couple of times a month. And, of course, there are those who might suggest that being a widow she had nothing better to do with her time. I am sure the Lord appreciates your sentiment there.
How many of us might suggest to a widow that there are better things for her to do with her time than worship in the temple night and day? How many of us might instead direct her piety toward the poor or sewing for a good cause or making coffee cakes to go with the Sunday coffee hour or some other worthy endeavor? But the Scriptures commend her for fasting and praying and do not suggest that she might have had a wiser or more effective use for her time.
Some of us might wish that the Lord Jesus had been older in this encounter so that He might have warned her against praying in public or fasting. Some of us Lutherans might warn her against doing what she did precisely on the basis of the words of Matthew 6. But we just might be missing the point. What Anna does is not singled out for censure or warning but for commendation. She is doing exactly what she is supposed to be doing.
Maybe she needs a good Lutheran pastor to warn her against thinking her good works will merit her salvation or that her piety is a means of paying for the Kingdom of God that comes only by gift or earning her way into God's good grace. Anna, don't you know?!
Is it possible to fast too much or pray too much? We Lutherans might think so -- simply upon instinct. But it would be good for us to ask if it is possible to pray too little, to fast to seldom, and to visit the Lord's House too infrequently? Today we have a screwy idea that such a piety is too old fashioned, too old covenant, and too extreme to be commended. Was Anna wrong or are we? Would we benefit from more Anna style folks? Or would we view their piety as dangerous? Do we have a tendency to view any piety as too much? Sort of like the way we view incense, you could but your shouldn't, we have grown into a comfortable piety which bears little resemblance to the piety of Anna or the Lord in whom she rejoices -- whose custom it was always to be in the Temple and synagogue.