As a high school actor I was initiated into the fundamentals of method acting. Later in life, that experience was put to the test when I myself began teaching high school and was unexpectedly asked to direct student theater. The method actor asks the classic question, “What’s my motivation?” The director of method acting takes pains to encourage exercises in emotional intelligence, body-mind awareness, improvisation and character exploration. Only later, once the actors are finding their voices, tapping their emotional core, working as an ensemble, and embracing the full expressive range of their bodies does the director get down to work on stagecraft: who will move where and when, how lighting and costuming and props will augment and frame the actors, communicate themes, and offer a creative vision. Without that preparatory inner work, a high school play can be a cruel form of torture for an audience. A young, inexperienced or insensitive actor will seek to convey mature adult emotions by aiming to use his voice and body to manufacture a dramatic or impactful impression upon his audience. The effort almost always falls flat because the actor hasn’t done the work of engaging that emotion — or its nearest analogue — in his own life, letting the words and actions flow from that hidden spring. On the other hand, the most gratifying and miraculous moments in a high school play are those in which we glimpse a young actor’s unselfconscious humanity: the embodied expression of her personhood taking shape behind and beneath the memorized lines and tentative gestures. Here and there, true feeling flashes forth and art takes flesh before our eyes. She has become the character because she is becoming herself. This is the fruit of the actor’s inner work.
Today’s passage from Matthew is ultimately about a changed relationship with asceticism – the means by which spiritual disciplines awaken genuine selfhood or restrict the full range of our humanity. John’s disciples engage Jesus in an earnest question about fasting, a tool they rely upon in the art of following God. Two basic motivations for fasting prevailed in the existing Jewish religious milieu: the fulfillment of fasting required by the Law, and the practice of fasting as an additional practice beyond what was required in order to hasten the coming of the Messiah. The latter kind was practiced in abundance both by the Pharisees and by John’s disciples. The first kind is motivated by duty, and seems to have become rigid and legalistic in Jesus’ day. The second kind is motivated by a desire to move the heart of God, but seems often to have been practiced as a way of earning “extra credit” with God. The underlying logic is “If I do this, God will respond in this way. I will earn God’s favor.”
Jesus does not abolish fasting, but shifts the central understanding of all spiritual disciplines for his followers. For Jesus, the new life of the kingdom he was opening to his disciples is much more like a wedding banquet than a funeral procession. It is a life firmly grounded in the context of an intimate relationship with Jesus, the Bridegroom. The theologian Edward Schillebeeckx notes that “being sad in Jesus’ presence is an existential impossibility.”[i] Sharing in the contagious joy of the Bridegroom and radiating that joy to all around becomes the central motivation of the wedding guests. The motivations “I must be joyful because it is my duty,” or “I must earn the right to be joyful” are not true to God’s reality. In this passage, Jesus alludes to the inextricable link in the minds of his contemporaries between fasting and mourning. He has begun to challenge that instinctual association earlier in Matthew’s narrative, when he says, “When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.”[ii] An anointed head and a washed face are the outward signs of an inner motivation of joy, the signs of one who fasts as if he were feasting. The contrast is stark next to the disfigured faces of the professional mourner in a funeral procession or the gloomy affectation of a professional faster. The author of Matthew also here alludes to Jesus’ death, the time when the Bridegroom will be taken away. But we read and hear as those initiated into the reality of resurrection, the knowledge that the Bridegroom will not be taken from the wedding guests for very long.
Christian asceticism flows from the conversion of life and transformation of consciousness that are the hallmarks of the kingdom. Once this conversion of life for the sake of the kingdom is our central priority, our animating motivation, our new wine, the sacrifices we are called to make with the precious resources of our time, our bodies, our minds and hearts, or our material provisions will become clear. Rather than an onerous spiritual burden in search of a compelling intention, the path Jesus teaches is one of genuine inner change with inevitable consequences in our words and actions. If you feel called to give something up or offer something precious to God, perhaps a good place to begin is to ask yourself: “What’s my motivation?”
[i] Edward Schillebeeckx, Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (New York: Crossroad, 1987), 202.
[ii] Matthew 6:16-17a.