Matthew 6:16. And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. 17. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,
18. That your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
As He has denounced their almsgiving and their praying, so now He denounces their fasting. For these three good works include just about all the rest. The first means that we do all kinds of good works toward our neighbor; the second means that we are concerned about all sorts of needs, both public and private, and that we bring these before God; and the third means that we discipline our body. As they had shamefully misused both almsgiving and praying by seeking not God’s glory but their own praise through it, so they misused and perverted fasting. It was not a means of controlling or disciplining their own bodies or of praising and thanking God, but a device for having people look at them, talk about them, admire them, and say in astonishment: “Oh, what wonderful saints these people are! They do not live like other, ordinary people. They go around in gray coats, with their heads hanging down and a sour, pale expression on their faces. If such people do not get to heaven, what will become of the rest of us?” It is not His intention to reject or despise fasting in itself, any more than He rejects almsgiving and praying. Rather He is supporting these practices and teaching their proper use. In the same way it is His intention to restore proper fasting, to have it rightly used and properly understood, as any good work should be.
The origin of fasting among the Jews was in the prescription of Moses (Lev. 23:27) that they should fast for approximately fourteen days in a row during the Feast of the Atonement in the autumn. That was the common fast that they all observed at the same time. In addition, the Pharisees had their own special fast, by which they did something more and acquired a holier reputation than the others. The common fast was not appointed as a means for them to be seen by other people, since it was kept by the entire nation. Whatever is common to all cannot become the special boast of one. This is why they had to undertake many special fasts, to give the impression that they were much higher and more spiritual than ordinary people. Hence their boast in the Gospel against Christ (Matt. 9:14): “Why do the disciples of the Pharisees fast so often, but your disciples do not fast?” In addition they made use of distinctive gestures and marks to let it be known when they were fasting. They disfigured their faces, they did not wash or dress up, they wore a sad and gloomy look, and they affected such deep seriousness that people had to talk and sing about it.
Now Christ comes along to demolish such fasting and to teach the exact opposite when He says: “If you want to fast, then fast in such a way that you do not wear a sad expression. Wash and anoint your face so that you seem to be merry, happy, and cheerful, like a person on a holiday. That way no one will be able to tell the difference between your fasting and your festivities.” It was the custom of the Jews to sprinkle themselves with perfumes and to anoint their heads so that their whole body was fragrant when they were having a celebration or when they wanted to be cheerful. If you fast in this way, so that it is a matter between you and your Father alone, then you have fasted rightly, and it is pleasing to Him. This does not make it wrong to wear poor clothes on a fast day or to go without washing, but it rejects the motivation when you do this for the sake of acquiring a reputation, and when you use special gestures to make people stare. We often read that when people were fasting, they put on sackcloth and strewed ashes on their heads, the way the king of Nineveh did together with the whole city (Jonah 3:5, 6). But that was another kind of fasting, which they learned from their need and misery.
From the Jews we took over our great season of fasting in Lent.10 At first we kept fourteen days, too; but then we became holier and stretched it out to four weeks, and then finally extended it to forty days. But even that was not enough, so that as additional fast days we set aside two days of every week throughout the year, Friday and Saturday. Finally there were the four golden fasts or compulsory fasts. Now, all these were only the general fasts. Over and above them, Advent found some special saints of its own, who made it into a fast. On top of this, there were the monastic observances in the monasteries and the particular saints that everyone selected in excess of the general fasts. The end result of all this was that none of this seemed to be of any value unless each one set up his own fast in addition.
Now, if you put all this fasting together on one pile, it is not worth a heller. The ancient fathers may have meant it well and have observed the fasts properly, but the filth soon overwhelmed11 and ruined it and made it worthless. And that was just what it deserved. As it was a mere human plaything to have these many special fasts, so it soon degenerated into shameful abuse. For I really dare say that in what they termed “fasting” in the papacy I never saw a genuine fast. How can I call it a fast if someone prepares a lunch of expensive fish, with the choicest spices, more and better than for two or three other meals, and washes it down with the strongest drink, and spends an hour or three at filling his belly till it is stuffed? Yet that was the usual thing and a minor thing even among the very strictest monks. But it was the holy fathers, the bishops, the abbots, and the other prelates who were really strict in their observance, with ten and twenty courses and so much refreshment at night that several threshers could have lived on it for three days. It may well be that certain prisoners or poor and sick people were compelled to fast on account of poverty, but I know of no one who fasted for the sake of devotion, and still less now. But now these dear papists of mine have all become good Lutherans, and none of them thinks about fasting any more. Meanwhile the poor pastors on our side have to suffer hunger and trouble, and they have to observe a genuine fast every day in place of such people.
Thus this kind of fasting has turned out to be a great deal worse than the fasting of the Jews and Pharisees. They at least fasted honestly and truly, except that they sought to enhance their own reputation by means of it. But under the name of fasting ours has become nothing more than feasting. It is no fast at all, but a mockery of God and of the people. In addition, they have added the disgraceful idea that there is a distinction among the kinds of food and that some of these are forbidden. They call it fasting if you abstain from eating meat; but meanwhile you may eat the finest fish with the most expensive sauces and spices and the strongest wine! That is why I have advised, and still do, that such fasting be trampled underfoot as a mockery and a reproach to God. It irks me that some people should practice and permit this mockery in Christendom, deceiving God with the mask of saying that such a life of gluttony and guzzling and belly-filling should be called a fast and a good work.
Now, this disgraceful deception is so coarse and impudent that it does not need the Scriptures for a rebuke; any peasant, even a seven-year-old child, can grasp and understand this. But the disgrace has been compounded with an even more disgraceful abuse, one that ruins even genuine fasting. Fasting has become a means of seeking great merit before God, of atoning for sin, and of reconciling God; in absolution, therefore, they have imposed this fasting as an act of penance. That is what I call fasting in the name of all the devils, hitting Christ in the mouth and trampling Him underfoot. If there has to be some sort of abuse and if some evil has to be done, I would rather let a man guzzle himself into a drunken stupor. If I have to look at filth, I would rather see a gorged pig than a saint like this, even if he fasts most strictly on bread and water. This abomination still fills the teachings and the books of all the monks, the bulls of all the popes, and all the pulpits. Even when they are doing their very best, this is the only kind of fasting about which they know anything. I will not discuss the extravagant way they exalt the gross and shameful lie about fasting to which we have referred, and the way they have used it to establish and maintain the idolatry of the saints. Yet no one has been found to say a single word against these abuses. Therefore I still say that never in my whole life have I seen a fast in the entire papacy that was really a Christian fast. All I have ever seen was disgraceful feasting and gluttony instead of genuine fasting, together with sheer idolatry and hypocrisy designed to deceive God and to fool12 the people. Therefore let us learn here what it really means to fast.
There are two kinds of fasts that are good and commendable. One could be called a secular or civil fast; it is ordered by the government as any other governmental ordinance or command is, and it is not required as a good work or as a divine service. I would like to see something like this, and I would lend it my counsel and support, if the emperor or the princes would issue an order that for one or two days a week there should be no eating or selling of meat. This would be a good and useful ordinance for the country, so that everything is not gobbled up as it is now, until finally hard times come and nothing is available. I would also be glad if at certain times, once a week or as often as might seem best, there were no evening meal, except a piece of bread and something to drink, to keep everything from being used up with the kind of incessant guzzling and gobbling that we Germans do, and to teach people to live a little more moderately, especially those who are young, sturdy, and strong. But this should be a completely secular arrangement, subject to the authority of the government.
In addition to this fast there should also be a general spiritual fast for us Christians to observe. It would be a good arrangement to observe a general fast for a few days before Easter, before Pentecost, and before Christmas, to distribute the fasts over the year. But on no account dare it be done for the purpose of making it an act of worship or a means of meriting something and reconciling God. But let it be an outward Christian discipline and exercise for the young and simple people, by which they can learn to keep track of the seasons and to make the proper distinctions throughout the year, the way the four Ember weeks have been observed for everyone to keep.13 For certain seasons have to be distinguished and set aside as fasts and festivals for the sake of the common herd, to preach and commemorate the principal events and deeds of Christ. This would not be regarded as a special divine service, but only as a memorial day, for dividing up the entire year and determining what season it is. In this sense I would be willing to condone fasts on every Friday evening throughout the year, setting it aside as a distinctive day. But I neither could nor would introduce such fasting unless it had been agreed upon harmoniously beforehand. You see, in this way the Christian Church would have plenty of fasting to do, and no one would have the right to accuse us of despising and completely rejecting the practice of fasting.
But even this is not the real Christian fasting that Christ has in mind, the fasting appropriate to each individual which, if it is to be worthy of being called true Christian fasting, involves more than merely abstaining from food in the evening. This is only a part of it, and the smallest part at that. True fasting consists in the disciplining and restraining of your body, which pertains not only to eating, drinking, and sleeping, but also to your leisure, your pleasure,14 and to everything that may delight your body or that you do to provide for it and take care of it. To fast means to refrain and hold back from all such things, and to do so only as a means of curbing and humbling the flesh. This is how Scripture enjoins fasting, calling it “afflicting the soul” (Lev. 16:29), “afflicting the body,”15 and the like, so that it stays away from pleasure, good times, and fun. Such was the fasting of the ancient fathers. They neither ate nor drank anything all day, they walked around sorrowful all day, and they withheld everything from their bodies, to the limit of natural endurance.
Such fasting is not a very frequent thing nowadays, particularly among our clergy, among the monks and the priests. The Carthusians claim to lead the strictest lives, and they do not observe it. They observe part of it for the sake of appearances, when they go around in clothes made of horsehair. But still they gorge their bellies full of the best food and drink, and they have a soft life without a care in the world. No, it will not do for you to quibble and deceive. Fasting means humbling your body and withholding from it whatever pleases and gratifies it. And even if they really did fast correctly, the devilish misuse of basing their holiness upon this and of trying to get something special from God by it would still be there.
Even if our fasting is the very best possible, we must not rely upon it. For there may be a secret scoundrel lurking behind it, an enemy of faith or love. Thus in the passage quoted above (Is. 58:3, 4),16 the prophet Isaiah denounces the kind of fasting by which they tortured their bodies but simultaneously tormented and troubled their debtors. So it was that Christ rejected the fasting of the Pharisees, not because they did not really fast, but because by their fasting they sought to enhance their own reputation and glory.
It takes many things, therefore, for fasting to be a truly good work and one pleasing to God. He wants nothing at all to do with you if by your fasting you court Him as if you were a great saint, and yet meanwhile you nurse a grudge or anger against your neighbor. If you want to fast right, see to it first that you are a pious man, one who both believes and loves correctly; for this work deals not with God or our neighbor, but with our own body. But nobody wants to do this. Therefore I have a right to say that I have never seen any real fasting. All there has been is a fasting that goes halfway or part way, and nothing but deception. To make an impression, someone will skip a meal but go right on tickling his body every day. One exception now may be certain pious preachers and ministers in the villages and elsewhere, who are compelled to fast from necessity and to suffer scorn, ridicule, and all sorts of trouble. No one gives them so much as a piece of bread. They do not have any fun or fancy clothes or easy times. They are the ones who wander around in the world, people whom no one knows, “of whom the world is not worthy,” as the Epistle to the Hebrews says (Heb. 11:38).17 But the Carthusian monks go around in their hairshirts, and our sectarian vermin in their gray coats. At these people we are supposed to gaze with our mouths open and say: “Oh, what holy people they are! How terrible and difficult it must be for them to go around in such dingy and shabby clothes!” And yet they never stop swilling and stuffing their belly full.
You see, what I call the real fasting of Christians means that you punish your whole body and compel it, as well as all five senses, to forsake and do without whatever makes life comfortable. This may be either voluntary or compulsory, provided that you willingly accept it. You may eat either fish or meat, but no more than your real need requires, to keep your body from being injured or incapacitated and yet to hold it in check and to keep it busy so that it does not become idle or lazy or lewd. But I will not take it upon myself to prescribe this sort of fasting, nor will I impose it upon anyone else. Here everyone has to take a look at himself and judge his own feelings. We are not all alike, and so no one can set up a general rule. Everyone must impose or adjust the fasting in relation to his own strength and to his feelings about how much his own flesh requires. For this fasting is directed only against the lust and the passions of the flesh, not against nature itself. It is not confined to any rule or measure, to any time or place. If necessary, it should be practiced continually, to hold a tight rein on the body and to get it used to enduring discomfort, in case it should become necessary to do so. It should be left up to the discretion of every individual, and no one should take it upon himself to apportion it by rules, as the pope has done. It is likewise impossible to apportion praying, but it must be left free, according to what each individual’s devotion or need may suggest or require. Almsgiving cannot be legislated or forced either, to whom or when or how much we are to give.
This is as far as the general rule for all Christians goes. Everyone is commanded to live a moderate, sober, and disciplined life, not for one day or one year, but for every day and always. This is what the Scriptures call “sobriety,” or sober living.18 In this way, though they may not all be able to observe the high fasts, they will at least do this much. They will be moderate in eating, drinking, sleeping, and in all the necessities of their body. They will do as much of these things as their need requires, not as much as their greedy appetite or whim requires; and they will not live here as though the purpose of life were only eating and drinking, dancing and having a gay time. But if their weakness sometimes causes them to go too far, let that be included in the article entitled “the forgiveness of sins,” together with other daily trespasses.
But above all, you must see to it that you are already pious and a true Christian and that you are not planning to render God a service by this fasting. Your service to God must be only faith in Christ and love to your neighbor, simply doing what is required of you. If this is not your situation, then you would do better to leave fasting alone. The only purpose of fasting is to discipline the body by outwardly cutting off both lust and the opportunity for lust, the same thing that faith does inwardly in the heart.
Let this discussion suffice with regard to fasting. Now we also have to look at the words that Christ appends to all three of these items—almsgiving, praying, and fasting: they are to be in secret, and then our Father, who sees in secret, will reward them openly. This statement of assurance is necessary for Christians who are upright in their performance of these works. In the world they certainly see their works slandered and covered up and concealed in such a way that no ungodly person can see them; and if he does see them, he will not admit it, even with his eyes open. Take our own case as an example. No one sees the good that we achieve and accomplish by the grace of God. The whole world does nothing but denounce us as people who despise and forbid praying, fasting, and all good works, who are the cause of misfortune and unrest. But they shall not see our prayer, whether public or private, even though they hear it and stand right next to us as we are doing it. In fact, they would like to attack us in public, while we are doing good and helping to keep the peace. God has so ordained it, as Scripture says (Is. 26:10), that no wicked person shall see the majesty of God, that is, everything that God says and does. As Isaiah also says (Is. 6:10): “Harden the heart of this people, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their open eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and are converted.”
That is the way it is with us, too, in both our doctrine and our life. I am sure that our Gospel is not hidden in itself, but broadcast so widely that they all see and hear it. Otherwise they would not rage against it so furiously. Nevertheless they cannot see it, and they have to call it not “Gospel,” but “damned heresy.” Similarly, they do not see its fruits in us, the good works that we show even toward them as our enemies, humbling ourselves utterly before them, offering them peace and every good thing, and faithfully praying for them. Yet they cannot bring themselves to admit this, but this very fact causes them to persecute us with even greater cruelty. For the same reason they do not see our fasting either, the way our preachers willingly endure hunger and trouble in order to serve the people. But when they have a good, fat collation, at which they fast with three or four courses, that is something precious and very saintly! Likewise our praying must be regarded as worthless in comparison with their babbling and howling in the churches.
You see, the whole of the Christian life has to be hidden and remain hidden this way. It cannot achieve great fame or put on much of a display or show before the world. So let it go at that. Do not worry about the way it is hidden, covered up, and buried, and the way no one sees it or notices it. Be content with the fact that your Father up there in heaven sees it. He has sharp eyes and can see a very long distance, even though it may be concealed by big, dark clouds and buried deep in the earth. Consequently the life of all Christians is intended for the eyes of God alone, and that is how it all comes out. We could live any way we pleased, and we could do as well as possible. Still what we did could not make the world satisfied or content or thankful, and it does not really deserve our help and kindness. Therefore we must give the world its walking papers again and send it home to the devil. With our confident declarations we must defy it and sing:
Let the world go or let it come,
It has no sense, the world is dumb.19
It is enough that our action is intended to satisfy and to glorify the One who sees it. God willing, the world will not make us start or stop anything with its thanks or its abuse, its anger or its laughter. We cannot make it any different from the way it has always been. Then why should we strive after its honor or its gratitude, which we cannot obtain? No, this we will commend to the scoundrels who wear rosaries around their necks, who howl day and night in the choir, who devour nothing but fish and stinking oil, and who do nothing but lost works. Let them have the honor and glory of the world. They deserve each other and they belong together, like cattle and stall, at the rear of the devil. As the works are, so the one who applauds the works should be, so that one villain may praise another.
One part of the consolation is in our knowledge that the world is not worthy of us, but that we have another One in heaven, who sees us and our works. The other part is in His statement: “Your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.” Not only will it be seen, it will be rewarded—and not secretly but openly, for the whole world to see it, together with its own eternal ignominy. Therefore let Him handle it. He will not leave it back there in the darkness, but He will bring it to the light of day; and He will do so on earth, in the sight of the people, as Psalm 37 teaches and consoles us (Ps. 37:5, 6): “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in Him, and He will do it well. He will bring forth your vindication as the light, and He will make your cause so clear that it will shine like the dear sun at noonday.” Look how shamefully the dear martyrs were murdered, and yet now they shine forth so brightly that by comparison the whole world is nothing but a stench. Thus before our own time John Hus was condemned in an abominable fashion that was unheard of before, and they supposed that his name was obliterated forever. Yet now he is shining forth with such glory that his cause and his teaching have to be praised before the whole world, while the pope’s cause lies ignominiously in the manure.
So let us be shoveled under now and stay in hiding. The time will come when God will pull us out for our cause and our way of life to shine before the eyes of the whole world even in this life, but still more gloriously on that day. Then some poor man will step forward with his fruit and his good works, and he will put the whole papacy and the world to shame. He will be sheer light and brilliance; they will be nothing but filth. We have to cling to the Word of Christ, and we must not let it bother or annoy us that now the world besmirches us and casts us off into darkness. We must look to Him and do everything for His sake. For the work and the Word of God cannot remain in obscurity. It must come forth into the light, regardless of how deeply it is covered up and buried. Whenever I have looked at the papacy, I myself have been amazed at how the devil has managed to use the abominations of the pope to throw the dear Gospel into a manure pile and a puddle, how he has buried it so deeply under the perversion of Masses, purgatory, and innumerable other things that it seemed impossible to me for the truth ever to come out from under all this. Still it had to come out, precisely when it was down the deepest and when they were thinking that they would remain in control forever.
That is what happened to Christ Himself. They had put Him under the ground, and they thought He was buried so deep that no one would ever sing or speak His name again. But just then He flashed forth, and by His Word He began to shine so brilliantly that it destroyed them. This ought to make us feel safe, too; for we have His Word that though our teaching and our works may be hidden now, they must come to the light and be praised in the presence of all the world—that is, unless God Himself stays in the dark.
You see, this is the promise given to us for our comfort and our admonition. We should exercise ourselves in genuine good works, without worrying because the world takes no notice of them. For the world is too blind to notice them. It does not recognize the Word and the works of God any more than it recognizes God Himself. It will never attain to the vision of how marvelous a baptized child is, or a Christian who receives the Sacrament and who gladly hears the Word of God. It must always look at these things as merely a waterbath or a piece of bread, or useless palaver. In the same way it fails to see what a man is doing when he properly fasts or prays. Therefore we commend it to the One who can see it, and we hope that He will bring disgrace upon the blind and crazy saints whose great and glittering performance now obscures the life and the works of Christians.
Luther, M. (1999, c1956). Vol. 21: Luther's works, vol. 21 : The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works (21:155). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.