Losing to Gain

by Dan Londeree, pastor

In Matthew 9, Jesus calls Matthew, a tax collector. Keep in mind, tax collectors were hated by most Jews because they were known for cheating the system for personal gain. This is a reminder that no one is beyond the reach of our Savior. And Jesus didn't stop there. Other accounts of this series of events in the other synoptic Gospels tell us that Matthew invited Jesus to his home and it was there that Jesus and his disciples ate dinner with Matthew and many tax collectors and sinners.

The Pharisees were taken aback. How could Jesus, who claimed to be from God, eat with these people. How could he spend time with them as if nothing was wrong with them? Our Savior's response to these religious leaders tells us all we need to know about Jesus and his mission:

But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. (Matthew 9:12)

Jesus came to reach those who knew they needed help. Those who thought they had it all figured out (the religious leaders) couldn't see that they were sick. They thought they were in perfect health. Anyone who sees they have a need for forgiveness can be reached by God's love. It doesn't matter what you've done, where you've been ... if you understand that sin separates you from God and that you need forgiveness, you can come to Jesus and ask him to save you. And he will.

Jesus then tells the religious leaders,

"Go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'"

Jesus recites this from Hosea 6:6

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6)

What is Jesus getting at? He is teaching that God desires for us to love Him and others, and to know Him more than he wants us to go through rituals. It's not that sacrifices and burnt offerings were wrong. After all, they were part of God's Law. But God knows it is possible for us to technically obey Him without doing it from the heart.

So Jesus said that showing mercy is more important than rituals. If we are showing mercy, it's an indication we have experienced God's love and mercy. It's evidence we are loving God.

Shortly after this, those who followed John the Baptist came to ask Jesus a question:

Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Matthew 9:14)

Remember, this question comes from the disciples of John the Baptist. This is not the same line of questioning that comes from the Pharisees who were constantly trying to trap Jesus. Their goal was criticism, tearing down, undermining his authority. John's disciples were different. They knew Jesus was special. They acknowledged he was from God even if they didn't fully understand why he came. Their questions were sincere. They were seeking truth.

John's disciples and even the Pharisees fasted often. Sometimes more than once a week. This was much more than the law required. In fact, the Old Testament law only required one fast a year. Let's learn a little more about this fast.

“And it shall be a statute to you forever that in the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall afflict yourselves and shall do no work, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you. For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the Lord from all your sins." (Leviticus 16:29–30)

So this one annual fast dictated by the Law was on the day of atonement ... the day that was set aside for cleansing the people from their sins. And here John's disciples were asking the one who came to forgive sins – the one who would atone for the sins of the world – why he and his followers weren't fasting. That's ironic.

The Pharisees and even John's disciples had added more days of fasting to what was required. They thought that doing more than the Law required would make them holy; that it would bring them closer to God. They didn't understand that forgiveness wasn't about requirements, it was about a relationship with the Lord, a relationship that now would be established through His Son.

Jesus instructed John's disciples about this new way of thinking; relationship rather than requirements.

And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. (Matthew 9:15)

As long the bridegroom – Jesus – was with them, there was no need to fast. Instead it was a time to walk with him, to celebrate his presence, to learn from him first hand. But there would come a day that he would leave them. He would be taken away from them. And then they would be right to fast.

Why was fasting important? It was a way to deny oneself and focus more on God. In the Old Testament, God's physical presence was not always evident. Going without food for a period of time was a way to deny fleshly desires and draw closer to Him. Jesus was trying to help John's followers see that it wasn't necessary for the disciples to do this because they were in the physical presence of God the Son. But when he would leave the world, fasting would be appropriate once more. Without his physical presence, fasting would be a tool to help his followers focus more on him. To look to him. To seek him. Even with the Holy Spirit living inside us, we still must take steps to focus more on Jesus, and fasting is one thing we can do.

This is why it is good for us to fast. But how do we fast? Typically a fast was from all food for a period of time, not just certain types of food. Fasts were done for various periods of time, but the fast on the day of atonement was a simple 24-hour fast. Jesus fasted for 40 days during his temptation. There is liberty here ... but for Holy Week this year I have chosen to call for a 24-hour fast. To eat dinner on Wednesday evening and then go without food until dinner on Thursday. During this time, I am asking you to only drink water. Please understand this is not a requirement. This is something I am calling for but it's not a mandate. It's simply a spiritual tool to help us prepare our hearts for Easter.

There is one other thing to note about how we are are to fast. Jesus gave specific instruction on how we are to handle this spiritual journey.

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16–18)

It's not about an outward appearance or making it a point to let others know what you're doing. This is a personal thing. It's not that you can't share your journey with others because you certainly can ... it can be an encouragement to them to take the same journey. But the point is to make it a personal spiritual journey during which you draw closer to God. It's a time when we deny ourselves to gain a closer relationship with Jesus. It's a time we focus on losing something we normally have to gain something much more important.

And it's not about a requirement. It's about a relationship.