Again: Jesus is telling His audience how to restore and renew the Covenant and prepare for the coming of the Messiah. What does it take to live in His blessed dominion?
Fasting is actually a rather complex issue in the Bible. Moses proclaimed only one national day of ritual fasting, the Day of Atonement. A few others were added by tradition after the Exile. However, there was a rather long list that never gained universal acceptance. By the time of Christ, the most rigorous Pharisees fasted every Monday and Thursday. Special fasts could always be called for times of trouble, such as unusual droughts or times of great national mourning. Finally, private fasting was a common practice from ancient times.
It seems Jesus is addressing private fasting in particular. While the Talmud specifically says one should avoid letting others know about it, we should hardly be surprised that the overly zealous would find pious excuses for putting on a show. There was a ritual of fasting in case of drought, and the Pharisees were dragging this tradition beyond its normal application.
The drought fast was organized in steps of three day cycles depending on whether God responded by sending rain. First was for eminent leaders of the nation, but with some exemptions from strictness. The second cycle was the whole congregation with the same exemptions. The third cycle was again the whole congregation but with no exemptions, fasting from all comforts as well as food. It was this final level that the Pharisees were emulating in public, including such things as no work, no washing, going barefoot, and wearing a downcast expression. Obviously, the whole idea was to elicit admiration for their piety.
The Greek word Matthew used here is the roots for our word “hypocrite” — playing a particular well-worn character on stage. The Aramaic word Jesus likely used was hanep: someone who corrupted things by how they acted. In other words, the Hebrew concept was far more subtle than the mere play-acting in the Greek translation. It’s far more than merely putting on a false front. It’s perverting the Covenant; it’s considered malice, a genuine threat to God’s promised blessings. These men are trying to claim a share of shalom by fraud.
Of course, the common peasant was not fooled by this hypocrisy. And it’s likely the Pharisees only pretended to be impressed by this show of piety, especially since these guys knew each other’s private lives. So for all their trouble, they didn’t gain much, and Jesus said that little was all they got. The Father was surely not impressed.
Instead, Jesus taught His followers that private fasting was private (the common English translation of “secret” misses the point). It’s between you and God. Don’t change your daily routine aside from not putting food in your mouth. The whole idea of fasting is to indicate to God how serious you are about the matter that provoked a strong reaction in your heart. You are ready to sacrifice, to pay a price to find His favor, so fasting is a symbol of your resolve. But He is the one who needs to see your resolve, not a bunch of people who aren’t involved.
But when God acts, His favor is impossible to hide. God always rewards His children quite publicly; that’s how His glory works in our lives.