The Apostolic Fathers are the direct disciples of the Apostles, and as such, their writings are the essential, primary sources to be consulted whenever one desires to know what the Church of the first three centuries believed and taught.
Many Christian churches between the 1st and 3rd centuries considered “The Shepherd of Hermas” to be divine Scripture. Many of the great teachers of the Church such as Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Origen and Tertullian considered “The Shepherd” to be God’s Word.
Even when St. Athanasius had not included the Shepherd in his list of 27 New Testament books (found in his Festal Letters #39), he spoke highly of The Shepherd and recommended its reading.
Unlike for the Western Church, Fasting was an extremely important spiritual discipline for the early Church. The reason for this was because Jesus had explicitly said that even though his disciples were not fasting while he was with them, that after his departure they would fast. (Matthew 9:15) Prayerful Fasting is also a great method of focusing upon a desired outcome, including exorcisms (Matthew 17:21 KJV). In the modern Church, both Advent and Lent are periods of seasonal fasting, in addition to the weekly instruction to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, found in the ancient document known as “The Didache,” or “Teaching of the Apostles,” chapter 8.1.
In the Shepherd of Hermas, we are warned of fasting in a manner that results in the puffing-up of our religious egos. The recommendation of The Shepherd is reminiscent in many ways of the “fast par-excellence” that God requires of his sincere devotees, found in Isaiah 58:6-7 (NIV-84). Basically, the God-sanctioned fast is for us to abstain from being “me-focused” to “neighbor-focused.” To stop being so concerned about our own personal desires and focus on bringing justice to the victims of injustice and oppression. In other words, to abstain from indifference and to live in the all-caring love of God.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter- when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
Part of Jesus’ teachings included an adamant protest against hypocritical passivity. One of the things that Jesus abhorred the most was the manifold excuses we present, oftentimes veiled as religious piety in order to justify our indifference. For instance, Jesus condemned the Pharisees for teaching at the time that if any man had promised a certain amount of money to God, that he was exempt from aiding his elderly parents when in need. (Mark 7:10-13)
Another example of Christ’s proactive attitude was in the case regarding what is known as “The Golden Rule.” The Rabbinical expository explanation of Leviticus 19:34 is basically resumed in the Apocryphal book of Tobit 4:15 (GNT): “Never do to anyone else anything that you would not want someone to do to you.” Jesus takes this teaching and turns it upside down, by transforming its’ injunction to abstention from evil, to proactive, positive action, in imitation of God’s constant, gracious giving to both the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45) God is a righteously, proactive God, and so therefore he expects for his servants to imitate him regarding morality and ethics. This is why Jesus teaches the following in Luke 6:31 (NIV)
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
According to the Shepherd of Hermas, abstention from food without a positive action that is intrinsically linked to justice and mercy, is simply a vain and empty religious act. The following is a small excerpt from The Shepherd of Hermas, Parable 5.3.4-9 (or 56:4-9). It is frankly…the most beautiful recommendation regarding the discipline of fasting that I’ve ever read. May the Lord bless you by inscribing these words upon your heart!
Shepherd 5.3.4-9 (Concerning Fasting)
I said to him, “Sir, whatever you command me, I will keep, for I know that you are with me.” “I will be with you,” he said, “because you have a zeal such as this. This fasting” he said, “is very good, if you keep the Lord’s commandments. This, therefore, is how you must keep this fast that you are about to keep: First of all, guard against every evil word and every evil desire, and cleanse your heart of all the vanities of this world. If you observe these things, this fast of yours will be perfect. And this is what you must do: when you have completed what has been written, you must taste nothing except bread and water on that day on which you fast. Then you must estimate the cost of the food you would have eaten on that day on which you intend to fast, and give it to a widow or an orphan or someone in need. In this way you will become humble-minded, so that as a result of your humble-mindedness the one who receives may satisfy his own soul and pray to the Lord on your behalf. If, then, you complete the fast in this way as I have commanded you, your sacrifice will be acceptable in God’s sight, and this fast will be recorded, and the service performed in this way is beautiful and joyous and acceptable to the Lord. This is how you must observe these things with your children and your whole household, and in observing them, you will be blessed; indeed, all those who hear and observe them will be blessed, and whatever they ask from the Lord they will receive.”