Question: What is the meaning of Matthew 6:17, “But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.” Matthew 6:17-18. Does the clause “anoint thine head” refer to a literal interpretation?
Answer: The whole major thrust of the first eighteen verses of the sixth chapter of Matthew is aimed at getting true Christian people away from the idea of seeking any praise, commendation or reward from men for what we do in service or worship to God and doing whatever we do in these areas “…heartily as to the Lord, and not unto men” Colossians 3:23. We see in these verses how that the serpentine influence of self interest and self promotion and aggrandizement can creep into and slither across our deepest acts of devotion and charity giving alms, praying and fasting.
Jesus presented these whole ideas as hypocritical acts. They were doing these things and announcing their doing and sounding their trumpets so that men would be sure to notice and give them credit and praise. This is all a very destructive thing to one’s relationship with God and to Christian living. Jesus said these people had their reward that men would see them and praise them but they had no reward from God. This is an attitude to be religiously avoided by true Christian people.
Jesus said, “How can ye believe, which receive honour one of another, and seek not the honour that cometh from God only?” John 5:44. We are certainly not to seek praise and commendation from men for what we do for God and for our acts of devotion and worship to God.
In the particular part of this over-all teaching on this subject the matter of fasting and how to carry it out we are instructed in general to do nothing special to let men know we are fasting. The anointing of the head (one translation says “pour perfume on your hair” and another translation says “brush your hair”), was a normal part of Jewish grooming but it was forbidden by their canon in times of fasting and humiliation. But what Jesus seems to be teaching us here is that when we fast we should groom ourselves as usual and dress ourselves as usual and not in any special garment of mourning as those people did, that we might not appear unto men to be fasting.
It is evident and clear that this is no part of the fasting itself because Jesus continues on to say “That thou appear not unto men to fast.”
True Christians should always avoid any tendency to vaunt themselves in anything they do for God and not seek credit from their fellow men for those things. Let us be satisfied with the credit and reward that God gives unto those who serve Him in the right attitude of heart. This will help our “togetherness” with God which is a very precious thing with the child of God. It is a very rewarding and enriching thing to one’s life when God rewards Him for doing something as unto Him. We are taught by Jesus to “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16.) Truly, all glory belongs to God and let us be satisfied for Him to get it from our lives.