16 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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 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.
The requirement that the fasting be done in secret is consistent with the requirement for secrecy with prayer. And once again there is a mention of an undefined reward for making these devotionals in secret. I love this as it’s marketing genius. It leaves it completely open to the faithful to decide the reward itself. Win $2 on a scratch-it, get a job interview, find out you’re pregnant, survive a plane crash; the credit for any one of these can be attributed to cutting back on the calories for God. And if nothing good happens, then there’s still your eternal reward to hope for. Just don’t forget to put some oil on your head and wash your face.
What I do find funny is rather than limiting himself to just saying don’t make a show of your fasting, Jesus offers this actual personal grooming advice on how to fake normalcy when fasting. Of course the reader can mentally updated his advice to ones more in line with modern standards of grooming, but the directive as it is is to put oil on one’s head, and this cements the text as very much a product of its time. It’s one of those directives where the faithful are meant to follow it in spirit rather than in letter, which makes the definitive addition of the oil and face wash a stumbling block to those who want to interpret every one of Jesus’s utterances literally. And for the faithful who want to read it in spirit, it also raises the question which other verses should be given the same leeway in interpretation.