Prayer and Fasting or Just Prayer? A Consideration of a Biblical “Disagreement”

Bread and wheat on wooden table, shallow DOFGiven the Gospel reading for Monday of the Seventh Week, and with the ongoing interest in demonology, Jesus’ instruction that demons must be driven out with prayer and fasting (cf Mk 9:29, Matt 17:21) is frequently quoted. And many people are acquainted with this text in this form.

But a problem emerges for some people when they go to their Bible to look up those texts. Some Bibles include the reference to fasting while others do not. For example, the two most common Catholic Bibles, the Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition (RSVCE) and the Revised New American Bible (RNAB), render Mark 9:29 differently.

  • This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting (RSVCE).
  • This kind can only come out through prayer (RNAB).

And in Matthew 17:21, which recounts the same incident that Mark 9:29 does, prayer and fasting aren’t mentioned at all in either the RSVCE or the RNAB version. Older Bibles such as the Douay Rheims (DR) and the King James (KJV), however, do:

  • But this kind is not cast out but by prayer and fasting (DR).
  • Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting (KJV).

So what is going on here?

The ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament are remarkably consistent, especially considering that they were handwritten by scribes, who might accidentally skip or misspell a word. But there are some discrepancies. Most textual variations are easily resolved by comparing several ancient manuscripts to identify misspellings and/or dropped words. There are some variations, however, that are not as easily resolved, especially when it is a case of one erroneous manuscript being copied numerous times and distributed. But even in that situation, a little detective work can usually find the root problem and distinguish between an erroneous text and a correct one.

But there are times when certain textual variations cannot be resolved and biblical scholars either do not agree or cannot be certain as to which is the most authentic version. Mark 9:29 is one of those texts. Some ancient manuscripts include the words “and fasting” (και νηστεια) while others do not.

For the benefit of the technocrats who are reading this, the following manuscripts support the translation that includes both fasting and prayer: P45vid2 A C D K L N W Γ Δ Θ Ψ ƒ1,13 28. 33. 565. 579. 700. 892. 1241. 1424. 2542. ℓ 2211 ???? lat syh co (sys.p boms). These ancient manuscripts, however, support the translation that does not include fasting: ℵ B 0274 k.

While the manuscripts that favor including fasting are far more numerous, it is not necessarily a question of mere numbers. This is because not all ancient manuscripts are considered to be of equal value. Most modern scholars favor the translation that excludes the reference to fasting because the manuscripts that do not mention it are ones that they weight more heavily. So even though many manuscripts do include the words “and fasting,” the earliest and “best” manuscripts do not include it. Critics of this current consensus view object to the presumption that fasting reflects a later concern of the Church. They also think that the most common “go-to” source (Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament) has been too influential. Welcome to the wonderful world of biblical textual criticism (analysis)!

The issue with Matthew 7:21 being wholly lacking in most modern Bibles has a similar explanation, though in this case the consensus is even stronger because the oldest and best Greek manuscripts lack the verse. And even those manuscripts that do, seem to show it in the margins as more of a side comment or a reference back to Mark 9:29.

So, all of this goes toward explaining why some of our modern Bibles report Jesus as saying that certain types of demons must be driven out by “prayer and fasting,” while others simply say “prayer.”

But is this just an academic exercise? What are there pastoral considerations?

The main pastoral (and liturgical) question would seem to be this: “Is fasting required to drive out demons or not?” The ambiguity of the textual evidence (as described above) allows that reasonable people may differ as to whether strict fasting is required and to what extent it is helpful. There are certain considerations to be made.

Even if certain demons are best driven out by prayer and fasting, we must never forget that it is God who drives out demons, and He doesn’t need our fasting to do so. Any prideful notions about the effects of our fasting should be strictly avoided.

Indeed, we ought to have a kind of humility regarding fasting. Fasting is certainly recommended, and the Lord Himself says that there is a time for fasting (cf Mk 2:20, Luke 5:35). But fasting can also be a source of pride (Lk 18:12, Lk 5:33). Fasting done out of pride or superiority isn’t going to drive out any demons; in fact it will likely attract them.

In longer exorcisms (which can go on for months), fasting may need to be mitigated or else assigned to members who are not part of the team directly involved in the exorcism. Physical strength is often needed to withstand the grueling work of major exorcism.

With such precautions in mind, and in spite of the textual variations in the “prayer and fasting” text of Scripture, the instinct of the Church is that casting out demons is best assisted by both prayer and fasting. The current Rite of Exorcism (2004) says,

The Exorcist, mindful that the tribe of demons cannot be cast out except through prayer and fasting, should take care that these two most effective remedies for obtaining divine help be used, after the example of the Holy Fathers, both by himself and by others, insofar as is possible (De Exorcismis # 31).

The Older Rite (1614) also advises,

Therefore, he will be mindful of the words of our Lord (Mt. 17:20), to the effect that there is a certain type of evil spirit who cannot be driven out except by prayer and fasting. Therefore, let him avail himself of these two means above all for imploring the divine assistance in expelling demons, after the example of the holy fathers; and not only himself, but let him induce others, as far as possible, to do the same (De Exorcizandis # 10).

Why or how does fasting add power to prayer? One reasonable (and biblical) answer is that prayer and worship should generally involve sacrifice. Scripture says,

  • Understand these things, you that forget God; lest he snatch you away, and there be none to deliver you. The sacrifice of praise shall glorify me: and there is the way by which I will show him my salvation, says the Lord (Psalm 50:22-23).
  • Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God (Heb 13:15-16).
  • You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread … And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest of the first fruits of your labors (ex 23:15-16).

There has developed in Western world the strange notion of worship and praise without sacrifice. In many sectors, worship has devolved to little more than a form of entertainment, wherein the whims and preferences of the faithful are expected to be catered to. Worship, by this notion, should be brief and should take place in comfortable, air-conditioned churches with padded pews and convenient parking. The “message” and liturgy should not be intellectually or morally challenging; rather they should be encouraging and pleasing. The music and “style” of liturgy should meet the preferences of those assembled.

Missing in all of this is the concept that liturgy and prayer should involve sacrifice, that they should “cost” us something. Yet Scripture clearly links prayer and sacrifice and indicates that they should, to some degree, be found together. Sacrifice is a way of establishing greater sincerity in, and integrity to, our worship. Indeed, worship without sacrifice too easily becomes lip service or turns God into a kind of divine butler, whom we expect to wait on us. God surely does supply our needs but He is no butler; He is God, who is worthy of our worship and the sacrifice of praise.

It is in this sense that prayer and fasting belong together, especially in the difficult work of driving out demons. Prayer and fasting become the sacrifice of praise that confounds and disturbs the evil one to no end. Scripture says, And now my head shall be lifted up above my enemies all around me, for I will offer in his tent sacrifices of praise with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD (Psalm 27:6).

It is the instinct of the Church that prayer is good, but that prayer with sacrifice (fasting is sacrificial) wins through, especially in that most difficult work of expelling demons and repelling the enemy.

The question of how best to translate Mark 9 and Matthew 17 is a legitimate one. But the long experience of the Church ought not to be neglected. And experience teaches plainly enough that as a general norm,

This kind cannot be driven out except by prayer and fasting (Mk 9:29).


Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Prayer and Fasting or Just Prayer? A Consideration of a Biblical “Disagreement”

Thank God it’s Friday (even during Lent)

What’s for dinner?

I know I am not the only one who does this – When I got home yesterday (Friday), I realized that I had only meat in the refrigerator for dinner. So, I traipsed out to the grocery store to buy some fish.  In the express line, I noticed that the person in front of me had fish and a few spices. The person in front of him had fish and a few other items. I, of course, was purchasing the same thing.

It is like Christmas Eve – just not as expensive

When I got to cashier, she asked me, “What’s with the fish? Everyone is buying up fish like it is on super sale.” I responded, “Everyone is buying up fish because it is a Friday during Lent.” After I explained our Catholic tradition some more, she then said, “So, it is kind of like Christmas Eve at the Mall, just not as expensive.”
I have to admit that this was probably the first time I linked Lent to Christmas Eve. And I had to really ponder how this cashier came to that connection. What does grocery shopping during Lent have to do with last minute Christmas gifts?

I think perhaps in the simple act of buying fish, my fellow Christians and I were participating in a public display of our faith. The only difference is that unlike Christmas, the TV news did not have a reporter on the scene to interview last minute grocery costumers. Can you imagine a reporter asking, “Do you always wait until Friday evening to buy your fish for dinner?”

Hey everyone – I am a proud Catholic!

Brothers and sisters, Lent can be a great evangelization tool. My wife mentioned that at a lunch meeting yesterday, in the midst of a buffet of beef and chicken, the only acceptable food for her was a tuna sandwich. It was quickly surmised that everyone who chose this relatively bland meal was a practicing Catholic. And in a very subtle way, those Catholics were evangelizing their faith.

Enjoy your last minute shopping

I love Lent because it allows us to celebrate Catholic traditions such as fasting and abstinence without the secularization that encroaches on Christmas and Easter. I hope you had a wonderful dinner last night.   And, I suggest that you wait until Friday evening to do your grocery shopping. Happy Lent!

The Key to True Fasting

Required fasting is almost non-existent in the Catholic Church today. Even the two days where fasting is required for those over 18 and under 60, it is really a mitigated fast of two small “snack-like” meals and one regular sized meal (no snacks in between now!). Not really a fast at all. A truer fast (going without food for the whole day) is practiced by some today as a personal discipline and it is laudable if a person is able.

Yet, even the mitigated fast is “hard” for many as are most bodily disciplines in our soft western world. We may think we just have to learn to be “tougher” and, by the power of our own flesh pull it off. I have no doubt that simple will power can  in fact pull off a fast, especially the mitigated one. But even a non-believer can diet and fast. What we must seek is true fasting, spiritual fasting that is far richer than merely abstaining from food.

In today’s Gospel Jesus gives an important key to true spiritual fasting. Let’s read:

The disciples of John [the Baptist] approached Jesus and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matt 9:14-15)

Notice the pattern. First comes the (wedding) feast, then comes the fast. What does this mean? Well, consider the wedding feasts of Jesus’ time. They often went on for several days, even a week. During this time there was food, feasting, family, fellowship, and did I mention food? Lots  of it, with wine too! It was a time of satiation. But eventually this time of feasting ended and by that time, people were filled. They’d had enough food for a while and now fasting of a sort made sense, it happened naturally without a lot of effort. What does this teach us and why does Jesus use this image regarding fasting?

Simply put, if you want to have the capacity to fast spiritually and truly you have to experience the wedding feast of the Lamb of God. In this great wedding feast which we are to experience through prayer, scripture and especially the Liturgy we are to be filled with Christ. We are to encounter him and feast abundantly on his Word, his Body and Blood and to rejoice with him exceedingly. And when this happens we are authentically equipped to fast.

At some point the “groom is taken” from us. That is to say, the Mass ends and we’re back to dealing with the world and its demands. Or perhaps we enter a penitential season, or perhaps we go through a difficult time where God seems distant or we struggle with temptation. Now a fast of sorts is before us.  But we are able to do so and are spiritually equipped to do it since we have been to the Wedding feast and feasted with the groom. Having done this the world and its charms mean less. We are filled with Christ now and we simply need less of the world. This is true fasting.

But let me ask you, Have you met Christ and been to the wedding feast with him? One of the sad realities in parish life and in the Church is that there are many people who have never really met Jesus Christ. They have heard about him and know about him, but they’ve never really encountered him powerfully in prayer or the Mass. They are faithful to be sure. They are sacramentalized but unevangelized. They know about Jesus, but they don’t know him.  The liturgy to them can be,  and often is, lifeless, a ritual to be endured rather than an encounter with Jesus Christ. Instead of being at a wedding feast, the Mass is more like a visit to the doctor’s office. The majority of the Mass for them is a “waiting room” experience. Finally, up to get the medicine (Holy Communion) which is great because now it means the Mass is almost over! Personal prayer isn’t much better. Another ritual, say some prayers, and be done with it. God is really more of a stranger and fasting is just another rule to follow more out of obedience to avoid punishment than out of love which seeks purification.

The disciples of John seem to have been of this sort. They were tough and self-disciplined. They knew how to fast! But it was a fasting of the flesh not the spirit. The only way to truly fast in a spiritual way is to have been to the wedding feast and feasted with the Jesus the great bridegroom of the Church. Then having been filled with every good adn perfect gift true fasting can begin.

And what is true fasting? It is a fasting that no longer needs what the world offers in large amounts. We need less of the world for we have found a better prize: Jesus and his Kingdom. Who needs all that food, booze, power, money, baubles, bangles and beads? In the words of an old song: “I’d rather have Jesus than silver and gold. You may have all this world! Just give me Jesus! “

We can only say this if we have really met the Lord and been satisfied by him. Only then can true fasting ensue. As you my expect, meeting Jesus is more than an event. It is a gradual and deepening awareness of him and his power in my life and in the liturgy. Make sure you don’t miss the wedding feast for it is the key to the truest fasting of all.

Preparing for Lent

Maybe, like me, you had to do a little shoveling this weekend! My neighbors were out of town and because I actually like to shovel snow, I shoveled their steps and walk, wondering if I could bank this little work of mercy for Lent!  Are you like me, often approaching the spiritual life like it is an account with God the banker to which you make withdrawals and deposits? Pondering all of this, I remembered a story that changed the way I think about Lent.

When I was in graduate school, I returned to class after Easter break and my professor shared with us the Easter Sunday homily he heard in an Orthodox parish. Following the Opening Prayer, The priest greeted people by saying “For those of you who have kept the Lenten fast, who have been faithful in prayer, who are prepared to enter into the celebration of our Lord’s resurrection, rejoice, this is the day the Lord has made.” The priest continued, “for those of you who are here and wish that you had been better about keeping the fast, about praying, about works of mercy, fear not and rejoice, this is the day the Lord has made.” And the priest continued, “for those of you who let Lent pass you by, for those who may not have thought much about our Lord since last Easter and are here today—and here there was a pregnant pause—rejoice and be glad for this is the day the Lord has made for you!” Father said you could almost here a gasp in the congregation—is this for real?

He was, as the Brits like to say “spot on.”  Salvation cannot be earned, it is pure self-gift. The lesson for me is that a well-spent Lent does not gain us points. A perfect fast or 100% attendance at daily Mass, or perfect record of an act of kindness a day is not the point. Teresa of Avila had an insight that sets a good tone for Lent. She writes of sitting in a chapel, gaze fixed on the crucifix and being overwhelmed by the realization of how much she took for granted having been saved by our Lord. How utterly oblivious she was to the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

 Make a Plan

These two stories present a challenge. They challenge us to decide that we are going to spend Lent exploring the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection, opening ourselves up to the awesome mercy and love of God. What, this Lent, will help us to enter more fully and completely into the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection? The Church suggests prayer, fasting and almsgiving as focal points for consideration. These disciplines open up some interesting possibilities. I want to offer a few suggestions:

Prayer: More is better

Carve out more time for prayer. The Archdiocese of Washington is asking every parish on every Wednesday night (beginning February 24) in Lent to have a Holy Hour and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Consider blocking out some time on Wednesday evenings to enjoy the quiet of contemplation in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Not sure how to pray in a contemplative way? Click here for some help

 The Wuerl Plan

In a homily, Archbishop Wuerl told the story of a parishioner he met who desired to make daily Mass a part of his daily routine. He was having a hard time keeping his commitment because his days were full and busy and it just wasn’t working. Rather than giving up, the man decided that he would make the commitment to go to Mass one day a week for a year and in the second year, add a second day and so on, so that in seven years, he would be attending daily Mass. The Archbishop commented on how reasonable that plan seem to be for a busy lay person. If it is good enough for Archbishop Wuerl, it may be good enough for you!


I do believe we have lost the art of fasting. I use to convince myself that I really couldn’t fast for 12 or 24 hours and not feel ill, light-headed, or cranky.  To be sure many people are not able to do this but I have learned to test my limits and found if I put my mind to it and make it prayerful, I am able to fast.  Fasting is one of the oldest practices of the Judeo-Christian tradition. One author speaks of it as a “response to a sacred moment, not a way to get what we want from God.” Fasting is linked to Lent because Lent is a period in which we recognize our sinfulness and how unaware we are of God’s enormous capacity for forgiveness and mercy. Fasting is a form of prayer that allows us to focus our minds on the reality that ultimately only God can satisfy our hunger and thirst. A traditional fast is to consume nothing but water (and for some not even water) for 12 or 24 hours. If this is not a healthy choice for you, a more common fast is smaller and/or fewer meals. Choose a fast and keep it.


The kind of self-giving love that Jesus so perfected in his death was the culmination of a life in which he chose at every turn to be generous, loving, kind, to freely give more and more of himself so that when his Father asked to give his very life, he could say  “yes,” as did his mother before him, and Moses before her and Abraham before him. Almsgiving is the practice of freely giving of our time, talent and treasure. In many cases, it does not even require that we leave home to do it.

And One More…

I suggest one more practice—spiritual reading. There are so many Catholic classics that can enrich and nourish our spiritual life and bring us into a deeper relationship with the Lord. I want to suggest three classics and one contemporary book that is tailor made for Lent.

 Augustine: The Confessions

The Confessions is readable and timeless as Augustine writes honestly about desiring to love God with his whole mind and heart, but just not ready to make the changes in his daily life that this requires.

Francis De Sales: The Devout Life

The Devout Life, written in the early 17th century, is one of the first books that looks at the spiritual life of the lay person as something distinct from the spiritual life of priests and religious. It is Francis, the Bishop’s attempt to reflect on the call to holiness in the midst of the world.

Teresa of Avila: The Way of Perfection

Though The Interior Castle is Teresa’s greatest work, it is not so easy to read. The Way of Perfection was written for her sisters in the style of a teaching manual and so it is straightforward as it breaks open the discipline of the spiritual life

Mary Margaret Funk: Tools Matter for Practicing the Spiritual Life

Sister Mary Margaret is a Benedictine Sister who has been a teacher and prioress. In this book she examines fasting, The Jesus Prayer and Ceaseless Prayer—all good Lenten practices.