An Homily of Good Works: And First of Fasting Part II

The Second Part of the Homily of Fasting

In the former Homily, beloved, was shewed, that, among the people of the Jews, fasting, as it was commanded them from God by Moses, was to abstain the whole day, from morrow till night, from meat, drink, and all manner of food that nourisheth the body; and that whoso tasted aught before the evening on the day appointed to fasting was accounted among them a breaker of his fast. Which order, though it seemeth strange to some in these our days, because it hath not been so used generally in this realm of many years past, yet that it was so among God’s people (I mean the Jews, whom, before the coming of our Saviour Christ, God did vouchsafe to choose unto himself a peculiar people above all other nations of the earth), and that our Saviour Christ so understood it, and the Apostles after Christ’s ascension did so use it, was there sufficiently proved by the testimonies and examples of the holy Scriptures, as well of the New Testament as of the Old. The true use of fasting was there also shewed. In this second part of this Homily shall be shewed, that no constitution or law made by man, for things which of their own proper nature be mere indifferent, can bind the conscience of Christian men to a perpetual observation and keeping thereof; but that the higher powers hath full liberty to alter and change every such law and ordinance, either ecclesiastical or political, when time and place shall require.

But first an answer shall be made to a question that some may make, demanding what judgment we ought to have of such abstinences as are appointed by public order and laws made by princes and by the authority of the magistrates, upon policy, not respecting any religion at all in the same; as when any realm, in consideration of the maintaining of fisher towns bordering upon the seas, and for the increase of fishermen, of whom do spring mariners to go upon the sea, to the furnishing of the navy of the realm, whereby not only the commodities of other countries may be transported, but also may be a necessary defense to resist the invasion of the adversary.

For the better understanding of this question it is necessary that we make a difference between the policies of princes, made for the ordering of their commonweals, in provision of things serving to the more sure defence of their subjects and countries, and between ecclesiastical policies in prescribing such works by which, as by secondary means, God’s wrath may be pacified and his mercy purchased. Positive laws made by princes for conservation of their policy, not repugnant unto God’s law, ought of all Christian subjects with reverence of the magistrate to be obeyed, not only for fear of punishment, but also, as the Apostle saith, for conscience sake; conscience, I say, not of these thing, which of the own nature is indifferent, but of our obedience,[1] which by the law of God we owe unto the magistrate, as unto God’s minister. By which positive laws though we subjects, for certain times and days appointed, be restrained from some kinds of meats and drink, which God by his holy word hath left free to be taken and used of all men with thanksgiving[2] in all places and at all times; yet, for that such laws of princes, and other magistrates are not made to put holiness in one kind of meat and drink more than another, to make one day more holy than another, but are grounded merely upon policy, all subjects are bound in conscience to keep them by God’s commandment, who by the Apostle willeth all, without exception, to submit themselves unto the authority of the higher powers[3].

And in this point concerning our duties which be here dwelling in England, environed with the sea as we be, we have great occasion and reason to take the commodities of the water, which Almighty God by his divine providence hath laid so nigh unto us, whereby the increase of victuals upon the land may the better be spared and cherished, to the sooner reducing of victuals to a more moderate price, to the better sustenance of the poor. And doubtless he seemeth to be too dainty an Englishman, which, considering the great commodities which may ensue, will not forbear some piece of his licentious appetite upon the ordinance of his Prince with the consent of the wise of the realm. What good English heart would not wish the old ancient glory should return to the realm, wherein it hath with great commendations excelled before our days, in the furniture of the navy of the same? What will more daunt the hearts of the adversary than to see us as well fenced and armed on the sea as we be reported to be on the land? If the Prince requested our obedience to forbear one day from flesh more than we do, and to be contented with one meal in the same day, should not our own commodity thereby persuade us to subjection? But now that two meals be permitted on that day to be used, which sometime our elders in very great numbers in the realm did use with one only spare meal, and that in fish only, shall we think it so great a burden that is prescribed? Furthermore, consider the decay of the towns nigh the seas, which should be most ready by the number of the people there to repulse the enemy ; and we which dwell further off upon the land, having them as our buckler to defend us, should be the more in surety. If they be our neighbours, why should we not wish them to prosper? If they be our defence, as nighest at hand to repel the enemy, to keep out the rage of the seas, which else would break upon our fair pastures, why should we not cherish them?

Neither do we urge that in the ecclesiastical policy prescribing a form of fasting to humble ourselves in the sight of Almighty God, that that order which was used among the Jews, and practiced by Christ’s Apostles after his ascension, is of such force and necessity, that that only ought to be used among Christians, and none other: for that were to bind God’s people unto the yoke and burden of Moses’ policy; yea, it were the very way to bring us, which are set at liberty by the freedom of Christ’s Gospel, into the bondage of the Law again, which God forbid that any man should attempt or purpose. But to this end it serveth, to shew how far the order of fasting now used in the Church at this day differeth from that which then was used. God’s Church ought not neither may it be so tied to that or any other order now made or hereafter to be made and devised by the authority of man, but that it may lawfully for just causes alter, change, or mitigate those ecclesiastical decrees and orders, yea, recede wholly from them, and break them, when they tend either to superstition or to impiety, when they draw the people from God rather than work any edification in them. This authority Christ himself used, and left it unto his Church. He used it, I say ; for the order or decree made by the elders for washing ofttimes, which was diligently observed of the Jews, yet tending to superstition, our Saviour Christ altered and changed the same in his Church into a profitable Sacrament, the Sacrament of our regeneration or new birth.

This authority to mitigate laws and decrees ecclesiastical the Apostles practiced, when they, writing from Hierusalem unto the congregation that was at Antioch, signified unto them that they would not lay any further burden upon them, but these necessaries that they should abstain from things offered unto idols, from blood, from that which is strangled, and from fornication[4] notwithstanding that Moses’ law required many other observances.

This authority to change the orders, decrees, and constitutions of the Church was after the Apostles’ time used of the fathers about the manner of fasting, as it appeareth in the Tripartite History, where it is thus written: “Touching fasting, we find that it was diversely used in divers places by divers men. For they at Rome fast three weeks together before Easter, saving upon the Saturdays and Sundays, which fast they call Lent.” And after a few lines in the same place it followeth: “They have not all one uniform order in fasting. For some do fast and abstain both from fish and flesh. Some, when they fast, eat nothing but fish. Others there are which, when they fast, eat of all water fowls as well as of fish, grounding themselves upon Moses, that such fowls have their substance of the water, as the fishes have. Some others, when they fast, will neither eat herbs nor eggs. Some fasters there are, that eat nothing but dry bread. Others, when they fast, eat nothing at all, no, not so much as dry bread. Some fast from all manner of food till night, and then eat without making any choice or difference of meats. And a thousand such like divers kinds of fasting may be found in divers places of the world, of divers men diversely used.” And, for all this great diversity in fasting, yet charity, the very true bond of Christian peace, was not broken, neither did the diversity of fasting break at any time their agreement and concord in faith.” To abstain sometime from certain meats, not because the meats are evil, but because they are not necessary, this abstinence,” saith St. Augustine “is not to restrain the use of meats when necessity and time shall require, this,” saith he, ” doth properly pertain to Christian men.” Thus ye have heard, good people, first, that Christian subjects are bound even in conscience to obey princes’ laws, which are not repugnant to the laws of God. Ye have also heard that Christ’s Church is not so bound to observe any order, law, or decree made by man to prescribe a form in religion, but that the Church hath full power and authority from God to change and alter the same, when need shall require; which hath been shewed you by the example of our Saviour Christ, by the practice of the Apostles, and of the fathers since that time.

Now shall be shewed briefly what time is meet for fasting: for all times serve not for all things; but, as the Wise Man saith, all things have their times. There is a time to weep, and again a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to rejoice.[5] Our Saviour Christ excused his disciples, and reproved the Phairisees, because they neither regarded the use of fasting, nor considered what time was meet for the same. Which both he teacheth in his answer, saying The children of the marriage cannot mourn while the bridegroom is with them.[6] Their question was of fasting, his answer is of mourning, signifying unto them plainly, that the outward fast of the body is no fast before God except it be accompanied with the inward fast, which is a mourning and a lamentation in the heart, as is before declared. Concerning the time of fasting, he saith The days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken from them: in those days they shall fast.[7] By this it is manifest, that it is no time of fasting while the marriage lasteth and the bridegroom is there present; but, when the marriage is ended and the bridegroom gone, then is it a meet time to fast.

Now to make plain unto you what is the sense and meaning of these words, We are at the marriage, and again, The bridegroom is taken from us. Ye shall note, that so long as God revealeth his mercy unto us, and giveth us of his benefits, either spiritual or corporal, we are said to be with the bridegroom at the marriage. So was that good old father Jacob at the marriage, when he understood that his son Joseph was alive and ruled all Egypt under king Pharao.[8] So was David in the marriage with the bridegroom, when he had gotten the victory of great Goliah[9] and had smitten off his head. Judith and all the people of Bethulia were the children of the wedding, and had the bridegroom with them, when God had by the hand of a woman slain Holofernes,[10] the grand captain of the Assyrians’ host, and discomfited all their enemies. Thus were the Apostles children of the marriage while Christ was corprorally present with them, and defended them from all dangers, both spiritual and corporal. But the marriage is said then to be ended, and the bridegroom to be gone, when Almighty God smiteth us with affliction, and seemeth to leave us in the midst of a number of adversities. So God sometime striketh private men privately with sundry adversities, as trouble of mind, loss of friends, loss of goods, long and dangerous sicknesses. Then is it a fit time for that man to humble himself to Almighty God by fasting, and to mourn and bewail his sins with a sorrowful heart, and to pray unfeignedly, saying with the prophet David, Turn away thy face, O Lord, from my sins, and blot out of thy remembrance all mine offences.[11] Again, when God shall afflict a whole region or country with wards, with famine, with pestilence, with strange diseases and unknown sicknesses, and other such like calamities, then is it time for all states and sorts of people, high and low, men, women, and children, to humble themselves by fasting, and bewail their sinful living before God, and pray with one common voice, saying thus, or some other such like prayer: Be favourable, O Lord, be favourable unto thy people, which turneth unto thee in weeping, fasting, and praying: spare thy people, whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood, and suffer not thine inheritance to be destroyed and brought to confusion.

Fasting thus used with prayer is of great efficacy, and wiegheth much will with God. So the angel Raphael told Tobias.[12] It also appeareth by that which our Saviour Christ answered to his disciples, demanding of him why they could not cast forth the evil spirit out of him that was brought unto them. This kind is not cast out but by fasting and prayer,[13] saith he. How available fast is, how much it weigheth with God, and what it is able to obtain at his hand, cannot better be set forth than by opening unto you and laying before you some of those notable things that have been brought to pass by it.

Fasting was one of the means whereby Almighty God was occasioned to alter the thing which he had purposed concerning Ahab for murdering the innocent man Naboth to possess his vineyard. God spake unto Elia, saying, Go thy way, and say unto Ahab, Hast thou killed, and also gotten possession? Thus saith the Lord, In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs even lick thy blood also. Behold, I will bring evil upon thee, and will lake away thy posterity: yea, the dogs shall eat him of Ahab’s stock that dieth in the city, and him that dieth in the field shall the fowls of the air eat. This punishment had Almighty God determined for Ahab in this world, and to destroy all the male kind that was begotten of Ahab’s body, besides that punishment which should have happened unto him in the world to come. When Ahab heard this, he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon him, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went barefooted. Then the word of the Lord came to Elia, saying, Seest thou how Ahab is humbled before me? Because he submitteth himself before me, I will not bring that evil in his days; but in his son’s days will I bring it upon his house.[14]

Although Ahab, through the wicked counsel of Jezabel his wife, had committed shameful murder, and against all right disherited and dispossessed for ever Naboth’s stock of that vineyard; yet upon his humble submission in heart unto God, which he declared outwardly by putting on sackcloth and fasting, God changed his sentence, so that the punishment which he had determined fell not upon Ahab’s house in his time, but was differred unto the days of Joram his son. Here we may see of what force our outward fast is, when it is accompanied with the inward fast of the mind, which is (as is said) a sorrowfulness of heart, detesting and bewailing our sinful doings.

The like is to be seen in the Ninivites. For when God had determined to destroy the whole city of Ninive, and the time which he had appointed was even now at hand, he sent the Prophet Jonas to say unto them, Yet forty days, and Ninive shall be overthrown. The people by and by believed God, and gave themselves to fasting: yea, the king, by the advice of his council, caused to be proclaimed, saying, Let neither man nor beast, bullock nor sheep, taste any thing, neither feed nor drink water; but let man and beast put on sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God; yea, let every man turn from his evil way and from the wickedness that is in their hands. Who can tell if God will turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce wrath, that we perish not? And upon this their hearty repentance, thus declared outwardly with fasting, renting of their clothes, putting on sackcloth, and sprinkling themselves with dust and ashes, the Scripture saith, God saw their works, that they turned from their evil ways, and God repented of the evil that he had said that he would do unto them, and he did it not.

Now, beloved, ye have heard, first, what fasting is, as well that which is outward in the body, as that which is inward in the heart. Ye have heard also, that there are three ends or purposes, whereunto if our outward fast be directed, it is a good work that God is pleased with. Thirdly, hath been declared, what time is most meet for to fast, either privately or publicly. Last of all, what things fasting hath obtained of God, by the examples of Ahab and the Ninivites. Let us therefore, dearly beloved, seeing there are many more causes of fasting and mourning in these our days than hath been of many years heretofore in any one age, endeavour ourselves, both inwardly in our hearts and also outwardly with our bodies, diligently to exercise this godly exercise of fasting in such sort and manner as the holy Prophets, the Apostles, and divers other devout persons for their time used the same. God is now the same God that was then; God that loveth righteousness and that hateth iniquity; God which willeth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he turn from his wickedness and live; God that hath promised to turn to us if we refuse not to turn to him.[15] Yea, if we turn our evil works from before his eyes, cease to do evil, learn to do well, seek to do right, relieve the oppressed, be a right judge to the fatherless, defend the widow, break our bread to the hungry, bring the poor that wander into our house, clothe the naked, and despise not our brother which is our own flesh; then shalt thou call, saith the Prophet, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am.[16] Yea, God which heard Ahab and the Ninivites, and spared them, will also hear our prayers, and spare us, so that we, after their example, will unfeignedly turn unto him: yea, he will bless us with his heavenly benedictions the time that we have to tarry in this world, and after the race of this mortal life he will bring us to his heavenly kingdom, where we shall reign in everlasting blessedness with our Saviour Christ. To whom with the Father and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.

  1. Rom xiii 4-5
  2. 1 Tim iv 3-4
  3. Rom xiii, 1
  4. Acts xv, 28-29
  5. Eccles iii, 1-4
  6. Matt ix, 15
  7. Matt iv, 15; Luke v, 35
  8. Gen xiv, 26-28
  9. 1 Sam xvii, 49-58
  10. Judith xiii-xvi
  11. Psalm ii, 9
  12. Tob xii, 8
  13. Matt xvii, 21
  14. 1 Kings xxi, 17-29
  15. Ps xiv, 7; Ezek xxxiii, 11; Zach I, 3; Matt iii, 7
  16. Is 1-16-18, lvii, 7-9

The Editors


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