“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do ..." (Matthew 6:16-17)

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 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." (Matthew 6:16-17)

Why is Jesus talking about fasting?

Jesus is alluding to the practice of his time - devotional fasting. This is an ancient devotional custom that a person will fast on a holy day - a day that commemorates God or one of God's representatives. 

This was a common practice during Jesus' times and earlier, as temple followers would fast on holy days.

Jesus is also describing how this practice can be misused and manipulated for the purposes of attracting the attention of others.

While religious holidays like the birth dates of saints and periodic dates of the ceremony have become feasting days to secular society, fasting for devotional reasons has a long tradition in every religious teaching. This practice goes back as far as Abraham and Moses. And Jesus' statement confirms that Jesus approved of this practice.

Devotional fasting contrasts feasting and secular fasting. The devotional fast is done to please and celebrate the Supreme Being. It is done as a personal sacrifice of loving service. 

One of the main benefits - and purposes - of devotional fasting is to focus attention on the Supreme Being.

A devotional fast is accompanied by praising God's Holy Names and glories. These activities also have a longstanding tradition in devotion to God.

What is secular fasting?

The secular fast is defined by Jesus "as the hypocrites do." It is done to appear to others as being religious and austere.

For some, the fast may also be about being healthy or losing weight. In both of these instances, as Jesus indicates here, the reward is given immediately: "I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full." 

How do they 'receive their reward in full'?

The benefits Jesus indicates relate to the respect or admiration of others obtained through fasting. As soon as we proudly display to others or tell others we are fasting, we have earned our reward immediately by gaining that person’s respect, admiration or attention.

Even the intent of fasting to impress others - so that we can be accepted by others - gives us this immediate benefit - while we lose the benefit that might have been gained spiritually.

If our purpose is to impress or be accepted by others, we have effectively missed the opportunity to please the Supreme Being with that activity. This is because we have turned it into a self-centered activity.

Self-centered activities - done to please ourselves or look good to others - are diametrically opposed to devotional activities done to please the Supreme Being.

What does Jesus mean by God being 'unseen'?

Jesus is stating that God will see our devotion - and see our fast - even if no one else does. This means that Jesus is acknowledging the Supreme Being's existence beyond the physical world.

Jesus says God is "unseen." What does this mean?

This doesn’t necessarily mean that God cannot be seen, but that He is unseen by the physical eyes, and unseen by those whose focus is upon themselves: self-centeredness.

Just consider the meaning of focus. When a camera is focused upon a certain image, it can capture that image. But when capturing that image, it is not focused upon other images and thus misses those. For example, if the lens is focused upon something far in the distance, it won't be capturing something right under the camera.

Seeing the Supreme Being has a similar context in that one cannot see the Supreme Being when we are focused upon ourselves and the enjoyment of this temporary physical body. In this state, one's consciousness is polluted with greed, and this clouds our ability to see the Supreme Being.

But when our consciousness becomes focused upon the Supreme Being, and our innate loving relationship with the Supreme Being becomes awakened, the pollution of greed and self-centeredness - and bodily identification - clears up. This opens our spiritual eyes:

How can we see God if He is 'unseen'?

While we are in the physical world we can see God now through the eyes of love.

These are our true eyes. Real vision takes place from the heart. Through one's consciousness. This is where understanding takes place, and it is through understanding that we actually see - or perceive.

The only way to see God - and see others as they really are - is with the eyes of love.

One may look through the eyes at someone's body but never actually see them. This is because they are not seeing with their consciousness. They are not seeing through the eyes of love and understanding.

Jesus' message here emphasizing seeing with the heart as opposed to just the eyes. Jesus is speaking about establishing our personal relationship with God, and loving each other. The fact that he says the Supreme Being “sees what is done in secret,” indicates activities done solely to please the Supreme Being and not to impress or please others.

How does a person begin to truly see then? It begins with focusing our consciousness upon the Supreme Being. Through personal worship of the Supreme Being and dedication to the Supreme Being. This means practical steps such as making offerings to Him and glorifying Him.

This is the nature of our original existence. Every one of us was created to exchange a direct, unique, and personal relationship with the Supreme Being. We each have our own unique relationship with Him. God wants us to revive that personal relationship with Him. This is the intention of Jesus’ teachings.