Read: Matthew 6:16-18
The only required fast required in the Old Testament law was taken on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement in which the priest would offer sacrifices on behalf of the the nation of Israel by going into the Holy of Holies (Leviticus 16:29-34, Leviticus 23:23-44). Over time, the Jewish people began to observe even more days throughout the year (Isaiah 58) By the time of Jesus, the most religious Jews were fasting multiple times a week. Jesus, being a religious figure, was often question why he didn’t fast as often as others (Luke 3:7-14, Luke 5:33-39). Jesus on the matter though focused on the heart of the matter. While many used fasting to show off their piety Jesus shows that fasting is not to be used for this purpose. He says that fasting should be a private matter between the one fasting and the Lord and one should do it in a manner so that no one else sees the fast.
Moreover, the real issue that Jesus had with fasting was the the fact that people would observe it while neglecting other issues that were certainly more important such as helping the poor, being honest in ones dealings, among other issues related to justice for outcasts and marginalized in society. James says that true religion is caring for the widows and orphans rather than acts of worship (James 1:26-27) which is a theme that is echoed from the Old Testament (Isaiah 1:9-17, Micah 6:6-8).
Religious activity is no substitute for right living – in fact God rather one help the poor and live righteously than to perform religious rites. Religious rites though can be rich experience when done in the right context. Like in the Day of Atonement, taking a fast to be a time to look introspectively at ones own life and confess sins before God. Churches will often have communion to reflect on the grace and love that Jesus poured out on the cross. Baptism symbolizes the death, burial and resurrection and and new life that Christians have in Christ. Christians do well to constantly evaluate why he or she does particular religious activities to make sure that the activities are done with the right motives and in a way that is not disconnected from the greater points of the law such as righteousness and concern for the poor.
Lord, help my religion to be pure and undefiled.